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Today’s post is courtesy of a friend, the renowned silver expert, Benjamin Miller.  This is a literal Bohemian Crown (in that it is from Bohemia, the westernmost duchy of Moravia–in what is now the Czech Republic). Manufactured from silver gilt, pearls, and glass/paste “jewels”, the piece is not precious in the ostentatious manner of crowns like the Great Crown of Victory, or the Cap of Monomakh, and yet it has its own winsome beauty. Indeed, the tiny crown reminds me of the garden in the morning when the dew is still on it.   The size of the piece is also reminiscent of fairyland: the diameter is a mere 15.25 centimeters (6 inches).

The crown is today in the possession of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Unfortunately, I could find very little additional information about the piece.  One imagines that it was crafted as a votive crown or as the ornament for a saint’s statue (although it could have been for a child or for some ceremonial purpose).  Such matters notwithstanding, the little silver crown does date back to 15th century, and it is possible that it was crafted before Columbus sailed! Look at how cunning and intricate the articulated silver panels are!

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Two Rats (Masatami. Late 19th century), ivory netsuke

My favorite rat artworks are not from China (nor from the canon of Western Art–where rats tend to be depicted as vile little monsters), but from another East Asian culture which keeps the same lunar calendar and recognizes some of the same symbolic associations.   Here is a small gallery of endearing and playful rat pictures from Japan.

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Treasure Boat with Three Rats (Kubo Shunman, 1816, (year of the rat)), woodblock print

I wish I could explain all of the puns, allusions, and anthropomorphized fables behind these images, but, alas, I cannot.  You will have to enjoy the rats relatively free of context (although I note that the ratties seem to be hungry adventurers…and several of the artworks come from rat years which occurred hundreds of years ago).

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Three Rats (Kono Bairei,1889 (Year of the Rat)) Diptych woodblock print in pastel shades

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Man and Huge Rat (Kunisada, ca. 19th century) woodblock print

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Figures from ” Chingan sodate gusa ” published in 1787

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Rats and fish (Kyosai Kawanabe, 1881) woodblock print

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YEAR OF THE RAT, MID 19TH CENTURY, SURIMONO, COLOUR

One thing that does jump out is that the Japanese found reasons to be charmed and pleased by the curiosity, bravery, and altruism of rats.  Even in the twentieth century, when American cultural influences weigh more heavily on the Japanese canon, there is still an independent likability to these rats.  Do you see it? Do you have any favorite Japanese rat images of your own?

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Toy Rat (Japanese, 20th Century) Plastic

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This is the great Gothic window of Milan Cathedral. With its sinuous hypnotic grace, It is an exceedingly beautiful design: the window looks almost alive, like a sessile organism of the deep sea. It is ornate and strong and fragile all at one. The design is not really very characteristic of Italian churches. Because of Milanese politics, a French engineer/designer was, Nicolas de Bonaventure, was appointed, to build out the church in the late 14th century. Nicolas added flourishes in the style of Rayonnant Gothic—a French architectural style which emphasized elaborate 2 dimensional patterns. I wish I could go to Milan and look at this, but, um I am too busy doing important things in Brooklyn. Milan will have to wait…
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Quingbai Ewer (Song Dynasty, porcelain) Zetterquist Galleries

Quingbai Ewer (Song Dynasty, porcelain) Zetterquist Galleries

China has a long (and continuing) history of exquisite art, but many aesthetes and Sinophiles feel that the apogee of Chinese craft came during the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD).  Now I am not sure I agree with the Song purists to that degree, but the work of that era is indeed particularly lovely. Additionally, Song creative forms became the standard templates followed and improved upon in seceding dynasties.  Here is a beautiful Song dynasty ewer with a pale blue glaze which illustrates the winsome delicacy of form characteristic of the time.  Note how elegantly the slender handle and spout curve into the flower petal body.  A little carnivore sits on the stopper: a dog or wolf or cat? This pale blue green color is known as quingbai (“blue-white”).  It is a pale translucent blue green over white and it is one of the characteristic trademarks of the era.  It is a wonderful little vessel!

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Joos Van Cleve was active in Antwerp from 1511 to 1540.  His winsome figures have a delicacy and elegance which is somewhat in contrast to the earthier figures of Flemish painting.  He was also a pioneer in putting large decorative landscapes behind his figures (although, to my eyes his landscapes are much inferior to landscapes by the greatest artists of the previous generation—like Bosch and Patinir).  In a way Van Cleve’s great innovation was combining the elegance and color of French art, the ecumenical breadth of Flemish painting, and the verisimilitude of Italian painting.  This magnificent picture of the Virgin and Child with Angels rewards close scrutiny.  You should blow up the image (for this is a huge file) and enjoy the appealing little details such as the deer woven into the rug, the tart summer cherries which a footman is offering to Mary, and the same footman’s studded jerkin!

Of course Van Cleve was not the peerless master that some of his more well-known contemporaries were and he sometimes overreached.  Looking at the less-than-perfect curly-haired angel in the acid-color jerkin gives me hope for my own career as a painter (whereas sometimes the works of Raphael and Perugino leave me in despair about ever picking up a brush).

A Toad Lily blossom

A Toad Lily blossom

Time for a short flower post to highlight the joys of the late summer garden! Toad lilies are delicately beautiful woodland flowers with a somewhat awkward English common name. The genus name “Tricyrtis” is not very euphonic either, but the pretty little spotted members of the lily family are a real highlight of temperate gardens at the end of August and into the still-warm fall months.

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Toad lilies are natives of Asia where various species range from the Himalayas east across China and all the way out to Japan and the Philippines. The flowers are various soft shades of blue, purple, mauve, and brown with little dark animal-like spots (which give them their English name). They are perennials which sprout from a creeping rhizome and they are hardy enough to resist extremes of both heat and cold. In their native habitat they grow at the edges of forests and bamboo groves—which makes them shade tolerant. Look at how pretty they are!

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Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

Flowers of the Aquilegia genus (AquiCredit: SA Hodges, MA Hodges, D Inouye)

One of my favorite spring flowers suffers unjustly from a tainted name. When visitors to my garden see the beautiful dark colors and delicate fairy shapes of this plant and ask its name, I am always loathe to say “columbine” because people then want to talk about the infamous high school shooting which took place in Colorado in 1999 at Columbine High School (columbines grow naturally in Colorado and are the state flower there). Indeed when I googled the name of the flower to search for pretty floral pictures I got all sorts of insane teen gunmen, digital tributes to victims, and soppy made-for-tv movies. This is a shame, since columbines are not just lovely, but hardy (all the way to the frigid depths of Zone 3) and easy to grow. Columbines are flowers of the genus Aquilegia which grow throughout the northern hemisphere. They hybridize prolifically, so it is hard to pin down the exact wild species. In addition to their hardiness they easily germinate from seeds.

Columbines (Aquilegias)

Columbines (Aquilegias)

The flower’s common and scientific names are also weirdly at odds. Aquilegia is the Latin name for eagle. The flowers received this fearsome name because the long flower spurs were thought to resemble eagle’s claws. Columbine is Latin for dove—since it was thought the inverted flower looked like five doves nestled together. It is strange that gardeners use a (tainted) Latin name at the expense of a different yet equally euphonic Latin name. I think we should henceforth call columbines aquilegias and put the columbine name behind us. Indeed, forgetting the Columbine massacre itself might be for the best, since greater media attention may lead to copycat attacks. [I realize that I am now guilty of writing about Columbine too–so I earnestly entreat any teenagers who are somehow reading this blog post about flowers not to shoot up their high schools. Stay in school, kids, and grow up to write eclectic blogs about winsome spring flowers: that’ll really teach the bullies!]

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With their elongated petal spurs and delicate shades of pink, blue, purple, and yellow, aquilegias are extremely pretty. Yet their prettiness belies their poisonous nature. Like many shade plants, aquilegias have poisonous seeds and roots. Indeed they are related to the infamous aconitums—which are also a part of the treacherous buttercup family. Hopefully other gardeners will follow my lead in calling columbines aquilegias—but more importantly, you should follow good example by growing them—they are really magical.

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

Plus hummingbirds (amazing photo by Ken Helal)

 

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The vernal equinox will be here in a few days.  This welcome news is hard to believe because the temperatures in Brooklyn are still dipping into the twenties at night.  However the first bulbs are beginning to crop up in the garden (although the insatiable squirrels nip them down as quickly as they appear).    A few bulbs have already flowered:  one of the earliest of spring flowers, the Galanthus (or snowdrop) has one of the most fragile and delicate appearances of any garden plant.  The translucent white hanging flowers resemble dainty tropical moths and grow from tender green shoots.

Snowdrop flower

Snowdrop flower

There are 20 species of snowdrops—all of which are hardy perennial herbaceous plants.  The pendulous white & green flower of a snowdrop has no petals but consists of 6 large tepals (3 of which are larger than the others). Snowdrops naturalize well in Northern deciduous forests.  Because they bloom so early they have the entire woodland to themselves and they form magnificent white drifts almost reminiscent of famous bluebell woods.

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Numerous poets, writers, and artists have alluded to the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and a metaphor for the passions of spring.  For example Hans Christian Anderson wrote an uplifting story for children about a snowdrop desperately aspiring to the light then blooming only to be picked and pressed in a book of poetry.  [Ed. As an aside, does anyone remember why Hans Christian Anderson was such a beloved children’s author?]

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops are not just a lovely harbinger of spring, they also have a tiny place in one of the great unfolding fights about bioengineering.  Snowdrops contain various active compounds useful for medicine or with insecticidal properties.  In 1998 a Hungarian scientist, Arpad Pusztai, publically spoke about rodent studies conducted on potatoes which had been transgenically altered to express snowdrop lectins (for insecticidal purposes).  Dr. Pusztai asserted that the modified potatoes were causing damage to the intestinal epiphelial cells of the rats (and imputed broader health dangers to the modified tubers).   The subsequent scandal impacted science, media, politics, business, and culture.  The scientific community came to the conclusion that Pusztai’s research was flawed (while anti-GMO community flocked to his support and rallied around his work as an example of how GMOs could potentially be dangerous).

snowbell?

Um, snowdrop?

Italian plums

Italian plums

Some colors are more subtle than others.  In fact some colors are so subtle that they are wholly ancillary to others.  Fine artists are attuned to all manner of delicate films, coatings, glazes, and washes which are added to a deeper color in order to produce a sense of depth or the illusion of texture. Subtle color-words—those which describe a texture, a mood, or a translucent quality are deeply appreciated.  Today’s color describes a secondary color which was known deep into classical antiquity and earlier.  The word glaucous derives from the Latin “glaucus” which in turn derives from the Greek “glaukos” (all of which mean the same thing)–a waxy, shiny gray/green/blue neutral color such as the blush found on fresh grapes.  If you have ever eaten fresh grapes or plums you will be familiar with this color as the delicate coating on purple plums and grapes (and if you have not eaten fresh grapes and plums, who are you? Live better!).

Grapes

Grapes

Certain plants also have a glaucous coatings—such as cacti and other succulents.  Ornithologists, ever in a bind to come up with Latin and Greek words to describe the numerous species of bird have also taken to the word.  Birds which have waxy neutral gray-blue feathers often have “glaucus” in their binomial names (just as yellowish birds are often known as fulvous).  The glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens) of the Pacific Northwest is a fine example.  The birds’ grey wings look as though they were glazed on by a gifted confectioner.

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

Glaucous Winged Gull (gull (Larus glaucescens)

I like the word because I like plums, cacti, and birds (obviously in different ways) but I also appreciate the concept of a pale color which is always delicately brushed across something else.  With a poke of the finger or a good washing in the kitchen sink, the color glaucous would vanish.

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The Numbat, Myrmecobius fasciatus (photo by Morland Smith)

The numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) is a small marsupial termite eater with lovely banded fur and an incredibly long sticky tongue.   These animals are also known as walpurtis. Although the creature’s claws are not strong enough to break into termite mounds, the numbat digs where termites are traveling between their mounds and their feeding grounds.  It then rapidly gathers them up with its amazing tongue.  Numbats are at most 45 centimeters long (about 18 inches) half of which is bushy tail.  Large individuals only weigh half a kilogram (a bit more than a pound).  They were discovered to Europeans in 1831 by an English naturalist who was delighted by their delicate appearance.

Goodness!

Numbats are not closely related to other marsupials and it is speculated that their nearest relative might be the thylacine, a marsupial predator extinct since 1936.  Although once widespread, numbats had a near brush with extinction themselves: their population dipped below 1,000 during the late seventies.  Foxes (which were introduced to provide sport to landowners before becoming deadly invaders) and other introduced predators were to blame for the near obliteration of the species.  Even though they are now protected, numbats remain extremely endangered. Today they can only be found in miniscule protected habitats and in zoos.  Speaking of zoos, the zooborns website features this ridiculously endearing clip of Australian zookeepers hand-rearing baby numbats.

A Baby Numbat

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