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Cockerel Cycle

Cockerel Cycle and French Cruller (Wayne Ferrebee, 2014, oil on panel)

It’s National Doughnut Day!  To celebrate, here are two paintings from my Microcosmic Doughnut Series.  Topologists and astrophysicists posit that our universe has a toroid shape—so I have combined my disparate background in history, toymaking, natural history, and Flemish-style painting to craft doughnut-shaped microcosms. Within these intricate cosmological confections, people and animals from throughout time converge in a never-ending circle—in the manner of the water cycle, the Krebs diagram, or an ouroboros.  Thus the individual elements in these paintings not only have metaphorical significance, they are also part of a dynamic larger picture.  Each landscape of dynamically intertwined symbols represents the cycles within individual life, history, or biology.   Each little doughnut painting is its own self-contained world; yet, taken in aggregate, the individual stories of predators and prey, metabolism, historicism, world trade, or biorhythms of organisms signify even larger cycles of creation and destruction not readily discernible from the fixed perspective of an individual life.  For example, the one above is about a classical French bon-vivant…or maybe it is about frogs or about cocks or chicken eggs.  There is also a fertility aspect to it (not to mention a French cruller in the middle).

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Furnace Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, oil on panel)

This second painting is less easily explained.  A variety of brightly colored synthetic organisms fly up out of a baker’s furnace.  Above the mysterious swarm, a humanoid figure in an asbestos suit and a blue-hot dragon spray fire on a salamander which basks in the radiant pure energy.  Blue-black gothic stoves dance around beneath the centerpiece of the composition: a glowing lava doughnut congealing out of the primal kitchen…or is it just a delicious glazed doughnut with chocolate icing and an orange squiggle?  The whole scene makes me hungry for cheap baked pastries…and for raw creation.  Now I’m off to paint some more.  Let me know what you think (and enjoy Doughnut Day with your loved ones).

 

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Lately I have been fascinated by Mesopotamian art–particularly early Sumerian art.  Here is an inlay carved into a piece of shell from early dynastic Sumer (circa 2800-2600 BC).  It depicts the hero/king/god, Ninurta fighting a seven-headed dragon (ancient Mesopotamians were fascinated with the number seven—which they put everywhere, in case you ever wondered why the week has seven days).  Ninurta was a famous hunter and warrior (who some scholars suggest shows up in the Bible as the hunter Nimrod).  His attributes include a bow and arrows, a sickle sword, and a talking mace named Sharur! [as an aside, I feel like a mace would be a singularly brain-damaged talking entity]  Ninurta killed a sequence of seven heroic monsters in order to receive innovations and magical items (a tale which is echoed in the stories of Hercules and the offspring of Echidna).  One of the monsters he fought was this splendid 7-headed dragon which, in this carving, looks like a cross between a leopard and a seven headed snake.  This amazing mythological creature was quite likely the original version of the Greek hydra.  Additionally a seven-headed dragon has a big scary role in the events of the Book of Revelations—so he is more on people’s minds than Ninurta is, these days.  However all of these allusions and myths are not as important as the vitality and beauty of this amazing artwork—which is nearly 5 thousand years old!

musmahhu 001

Saint George and the Dragon (Vittore Carpaccio, 1507 AD, tempera on panel)

Saint George and the Dragon (Vittore Carpaccio, 1507 AD, tempera on panel)

 

Vittore Carpaccio was born around 1465 in either Venice or in Capodistria (a port in Istria which had been taken over by the Republic of Venice in the 14th century). His father was a glovemaker who was most likely from Albania. Carpaccio is one of the masters of early Venetian art, but he is not as famous as his contemporaries Bellini and Giorgione. This is because of Carpaccio’s style inclined toward the conservative and Gothic rather than towards the humanistic Renaissance style which was coming into vogue, but it is also because he did not have the same caliber of successful students as his two peers (who taught Titian).

Here is Carpaccio’s 1507 work Saint George and the Dragon which is painted in tempera on a panel and is housed in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. The Scuolo was a confraternity—a sort of early version of a corporation—which commissioned the work in the first years of the sixteenth century and it has been there ever since.

When I was a child I always wanted to go to the Medieval section of the museum to look at knights–and I was always disappointed by all the self tormenting Saints and Jesuses (which took me a while to properly appreciate). Here, however, is a painting I would have loved! The splendidly armed and armored knight is depicted at the exact moment he drives a beaked lance through the monster’s head! This incendiary action is framed by a meticulously detailed world of dizzying beauty and horror. The dragon is surrounded by the dreadful remains of his many victims. You should blow up the digital photo of the painting to get a good view of all the snakes, skulls, toads, and seashells scattered on the round around the dragon’s lair (not to mention the naked half-eaten maiden whose remains are being scavenged by a lizard). In the near background a Libyan princess in exotic Eastern headwear clasps her hands in horror. Although her vivid attire is meant to represent the exotic East, she seems like a fragment of Carpaccio’s imagination. Likewise, the fantasy city in the background is meant to be Silene of Libya, yet the trade ships of the Middle Ages and all of the Romanesque and Gothic castles, keeps, and villas in the background put one firmly in mind of the Adriatic.

All the major lines of the painting (the dragon’s head, the lance, the ocean, and the horse’s back legs) point straight at the glittering red and black knight who dominates the composition. Resplendent on his destrier, clad in sable armor, with his blond curly hair cascading behind him he is perfectly at home in his world of religion and ultraviolence. The knight is the perfect representation of the troubled world of early sixteenth century Venice (increasingly at odds with the Ottoman Empire). It was a time and place which called for violent men of action.

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

A European Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)

Because of their tendency to tear up my tulips, eat my Christmas lights, and bore into the side of my dwelling, squirrels are not my favorite animal. But the indignities which I bear from these bushy-tailed arboreal rodents are nothing compared to the animosity roused by Ratatoskr, the squirrel of Norse mythology who dwells on the trunk of Yggdrasil, the universe tree (which is described in this previous post).

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At the apex of Yggdrasil is perched the mighty eagle Hræsvelgr who causes the winds to blow through the world by flapping his wings. At the base of the tree, curled around the roots is Níðhöggr, the underworld dragon who eats away at the roots of Yggdrasil and thus undermines all of creation. Compared to giant eagles and chthonic dragons, squirrels are low-status monsters, yet Ratatoskr managed to stir up plenty of trouble. He would run up and down the tree between the dragon and the eagle telling each creature gossip about the other. At first, Ratatoskr made up slanders to tell the two monsters, but, in no time, the two haughty beings really were cursing each other (which made Ratatoskr even happier). To quote IO9, “Ratatosk has no grand scheme, and the eagle and the dragon aren’t prophesied to fight or do anything. Ratatosk is spending his free time perpetuating an animosity for no reason whatsoever.” As though this were not bad enough, the irrepressible squirrel is also reputed to gnaw at the great tree itself.

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (source unknown)

Ratatoskr on Yggdrasil (Art by Daniel Lieske http://daniellieske.com )

The Vikings regarded gossip as a low and churlish form of skullduggery reserved for thralls, slaves, churls and other such hoi-polloi. It seems appropriate that the embodiment of gossip and slander in their mythology was an annoying chattering squirrel.

Last year I wrote about the world’s fastest human powered boat, the 170 oar Hellenic navy trireme Olympias, which is scheduled to visit New York’s harbor as part of the tall ship festival this summer (July, 2012).  One of my friends has even been training to crew the classical warship while it is here, so we will be returning to that story soon!  In the mean time, however I have been following the somewhat related story of the traditional construction of a Viking longboat in Norway.

Dragon Harald Fairhair. Drawing by Øystein Ormbostad

Viking ships were up to three times as fast as the other ships of the time.  They could be pulled entirely on the beach and they had flexible, clinker lined hulls which allowed them to conform to the waves in the manner of the serpents, dragons, and seabirds which were their emblems. Vikings used their superior ships to undertake prodigious feats of sailing.  The Norse mariners sailed from North America in the west, to the far distant Sea of Azov beyond the Black Sea (and pretty much everywhere in between).  Not only were the sea coasts of Europe, Central Asia, and North America accessible to Viking ships: because the vessels had such a shallow draft, they could operate on rivers which were regarded as non-navigable.  From the 8th to the 11th centuries, Scandinavian sailors could appear almost anywhere to explore, trade, pillage, or hire out as mercenaries.

The Sea Stallion from Glendalough (Havhingsten fra Glendalough) is the largest replica Viking ship built to date. The ship is 29 metres long and carries 60 oarsmen, with a crew of 70 – 80.

The ship being crafted today in Haugesund (Western Norway) is based on a large greatship (storskipene) of the Norwegian coastal fleet.  The boat will be christened the Dragon Harald Fairhair in honor of King Harald Fairhair (c. 850 – c. 933) who welded the petty kingdoms of Norway together as a unified nation (that’s a metaphor—he used statecraft and war to assemble his kingdom rather than actual welding). In order to make the ship as realistic as possible, traditional boatwrights have pored over classical literary sources from medieval sagas, as well as analyzing drawings, carvings, and actual period boats from wrecks and burials.  The project’s website describes the completed boat

At a hundred and fourteen feet of crafted oak, twenty-seven feet on the beam, displacing seventy tons, and with a thirty-two hundred square foot sail of pure silk, this magnificent ship will indeed be worthy of a king.

The Dragon Harald Fairhair will have 25 pairs of oars. It is necessary to have at least two people on  each oar to row the ship efficiently. That will give a crew of at least 100 persons, yet the craft should be able to be sailed by only twelve.

When it is finished, the Dragon King Harald, will join a veritable fleet of reconstructed Viking boats (which can be seen here at vikingstoday.com).  The craft should be seaworthy in summer of 2012, but its builders anticipate spending a season experimenting with rigging and sailing techniques (since there are no actual Viking sailors left to explain how to operate a working Viking longboat.

Dragon Harald Fairhair under construction February 2012 (Arne Terje Sæther)

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks!  This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed).  Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year.  If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.

The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle.  Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).

A Chinese porcelain blue and white 'dragon' jar. Ming Dynasty, Jiajing period (1522-66). Photo Gibson Antiques

Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources.  In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds.  They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.

Bronze Dragon from the Summer Palace, Beijing

Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish.  According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor.  The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own.  As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.

The Yellow Emperor (Illustrated by Blue Hsiao)

People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits.  Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.

Gung hay fat choy!

Phoenix crown worn by Emperor Wanli’ s Empress Xiaoduan, Wanli period (1573-1620), Ming Dynasty.

In Dynastic China the most important ceremonial objects around which the Emperor’s power was focused was not a crown but rather the imperial seals.  However that does not mean that ornate jeweled crowns were not a part of court life. Phoenix crowns were worn by the empress and other exalted noblewomen on ceremonial occasions.  These headdresses were adorned with intricate sculptures of dragons, phoenixes, and pheasants made from precious materials.  The crowns were highly ornamental and were literally encrusted with gold, turquoise, kingfisher feathers, pearls, and gemstones.

The 6-dragon-3-phoenix crown of a Ming dynasty Empress (3 of the dragons are at the back of the crown)

First crafted in the Tang Dynasty, phoenix crowns changed many times in accordance with Chinese fashion but they found their greatest era of popularity in the Ming dynasty when the wearer’s status was indicated by the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants on her crown.  The empress was allowed to wear a crown with 12 dragons and 9 phoenixes, but a less-favored concubine or minor princess might be forced to endure a mere 7 pheasants.

Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) the only de facto ruling Empress of China, shown wearing a Phoenix Crown in the Tang Era

A Phoenix Crown adorning a Song Dynasty Empress (from a Song portrait painting)

Phoenix Crown by 张雅涵

Phoenix crowns—or similarly elaborate jeweled crowns are also associated with weddings and the juxtaposition of the bride’s red robes (red is the super magic happy lucky color of China) against the bright blue of the turquoise and kingfisher feathers makes for a bold visual presentation.

Traditional Chinese Wedding Garb

Traditional Chinese Wedding

The Black Dragon Gong Gong and the Serpent Goddess Nüwa

In Chinese mythology, Gong Gong was a tempestuous and unhappy water spirit of great strength.  He is usually portrayed as a raging black dragon or as a seething water monster.  In an earlier post concerning the Black Mansion—the Chinese underworld—I described how rigorously regimented the Chinese spirit world is (on earth, in heaven, and in hell).  Gong Gong was a spirit who was not happy with the rigid hierarchical order of things.  Despite his raw power, his job in the courts of heaven was to run trivial errands and fill out tedious paperwork.  Growing sick of what he perceived as menial chores, Gong Gong rebelled against the Jade Emperor.  In order to usurp control of heaven, he unleashed terrible floods and allied with a wicked nine-headed demon named Xiangliu.

Gong Gong hurls himself into Mount Buzhou

Together Gong Gong and Xiangliu brought about great destruction in the world.  The tumult they unleashed killed countless people.  But, despite the suffering they caused, the two could not defeat the powers of heaven.  They were opposed by Zhu Rong, the god of fire and ruler of the south, a mighty swordsman who fought mounted on the back of his magic tiger.  Unable to withstand Zhu Rong’s ferocity, the monsters were about to be defeated outright.  Infuriated and unwilling to accept such shame, Gong Gong hurled himself into Mount Buzhou, a mythical mountain which was one of the principal supports of heaven.  Part of the mountain collapsed and a terrible hole appeared in the sky.  The suffering caused by Gong Gong’s earlier actions was nothing compared to the catastrophe caused by this collapse.   Flood and fire swept earth.  Terrible creatures from beyond came through the rip in existence and ravaged the planet. Famine and horror stalked the world and it seemed as though all living things were doomed.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven

With the other gods helpless, the creator goddess Nüwa again stepped forward.  She cut the legs off a great turtle and propped the sky back on its axis.  Then she gathered precious stones from a river and cast the breath of her magic into them.  With these multicolored stones she repaired the vault of heaven.  In some versions of the story she slew the black dragon Gong Gong whereas in other versions he sneaked away and still remains at large somewhere in the world.  Whatever the case, Nüwa’s repairs were not perfect.  The sun and moon now flow across the heavens from east to west and the stars were thrown from their position to drift with the seasons.  Even the North star was jarred from true north.

Nüwa Repairs the Breach in Heaven (a modern interpretation)

Strangely enough my favorite Chinese novel (maybe my favorite novel from anywhere) originates from this tumultuous myth.  The Story of the Stone was written by Cao Xueqin in the eighteenth century as the Qing dynasty first began to relentlessly unwind.  It is the story of a great princely house slowly losing its vigor and declining from within.  In a bigger sense it is the story of mortal kind and the ineluctable flux of our little lives. There are 40 major characters and more than four hundred minor ones in a drama that spans the epic breadth of Chinese history and culture (and takes up thousands of pages).  The portrayal of all levels of Chinese society is magnificent…but just beyond the petty intrigues, squabbles, affairs, and misunderstandings that make up the complex plot of The Story of the Stone are hints at an enigmatic divine order underpinning the cosmos.  From time to time, a strange beggar covered with sores and limping on an iron crutch shows up with magic medicines.  The female lead is hauntingly familiar with an otherworldy beauty to her mien.  And the protagonist of the story, Jia Baoyu, is a fey aristocratic adolescent who was born with a magic piece of jade in his mouth.  Although it doesn’t come up often in the novel and it is not obvious to the characters, the hero is the stone.  He was one of the gemstones given magical life by Nüwa in order to repair the breach in heaven–but he was not used because of a flaw.   Frustrated by life at the edge of heaven, he incarnates as a mortal and the book is the story of his human life…indeed of all human life.   I won’t say more about The Story of the Stone other than to apologize for not explaining how impossibly brilliant and ineffable the work is.  I must also offer an attendant caveat: this is the consummate literary masterpiece of China and, as such, it is overwhelmingly and heartbreakingly sad.

The Penguin version as elegantly translated by David Hawke

Nüwa

Nüwa was a serpent deity from ancient Chinese mythology. Sometimes she is pictured as a gorgeous woman, other times she is shown possessing a woman’s head but the body of a powerful snake. Nüwa was the creator of humankind and remained a powerful benefactor to people and all living creatures (many of which were also her handiwork).

When the world was new, Nüwa walked through empty plains and valleys.  Perceiving that creation was very desolate and lonely she began to craft living creatures in order to fill the waste.  On the first day she made chickens and sent them clucking through creation.  On the second day she fashioned dogs to run through the forest. On the third day she created sheep to graze the plains. On the fourth day she crafted pigs to root through the earth.  On the fifth day she made gentle cows and truculent bulls. On the sixth day she was inspired and crafted horses.  On the seventh day she was walking near a river and she saw her beautiful reflection.  She knelt down in the yellow clay and began to hand sculpt figures similar to herself.  As she set the lovely little forms down, they came to life and began to call out to her as mother.  All day Nüwa built more and more of the little people, after her long labors, her energy was waning.  To finish the job she picked up a strand of ivy and dipped in the fecund mud.  Then she flicked the mud across the lands.  Everywhere the little blobs fell, people sprung up, coarser and less lovely then the hand-made folk, but perfectly serviceable.  Thus did Nüwa create humankind, separating from the very beginning the rich and noble people from the commoners by means of her crafting methods.

Fuxi and Nüwa, an ancient painting from Xinjiang

Nüwa loved her creations and she continued to look after them quietly (for she was modest and disliked effusive worship).  She took Fuxi, the first of the three sovereigns of ancient China as her spouse.  Fuxi was a hero in his own right and is said to have invented fishing and trapping.  There are many ancient pictures and representations of the happy couple entwined as huge loving snake people.  However one day the great black water dragon Gong Gong put her marriage and all of her work in peril.  The story of what happened subsequently is of great interest (and bears directly on my favorite work of Chinese literature) so I will tell it completely tomorrow.

Nüwa in serpent guise

Jason and the Argonauts faced one of Echidna’s children, the Colchian Dragon, which was guarding the golden fleece.  Taking a page out of Dashiell Hammett’s playbook, they slipped the monster a mickey and made off with the fleece while the dragon slumbered (pausing only to draw a mustache on the creature).  Not exactly a proud moment…but it was probably the least morally ambiguous thing they did during their dark quest.

Here is a painting of a very very fancy Jason, administering the potion to the dragon.  The fact that the monster is about the size of a terrier makes the whole scene even more hilarious but hey, that’s eighteenth century art for you.

Charming the Sleepless Dragon of the Golden Fleece (Giovanni Battista Crosato, 1697-1756)

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