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In dynastic China, the color yellow was considered to be the most beautiful and prestigious color. Yellow was symbolically linked with the land itself and the turning of tao: thus yellow became associated with the mandate of heaven–the emperor’s divine prerogative over the middle kingdom. Huang Di, the mythical first emperor of China (who was worshiped as a culture hero and a powerful magician/sage) was more commonly known as “the yellow emperor”. Yellow was extensively employed in the decoration of the royal palaces and the royal personage. During the Ming dynasty, when a yellow glaze was discovered for porcelain, it was initially the exclusive provenance of the imperial household.

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

Here is a stem-cup in imperial yellow from the Ming dynasty. It bears the mark of the Hongzhi period (Hongzhi reigned from 1487-1505). A five clawed dragon, the symbol of the emperor crawls along the side of the piece. The cup perfectly exemplifies the elegant lines and perfect calligraphic grace of middle Ming aesthetic ideas. Additionally the age of the hardworking and morally upstanding Hongzhi was an era of peace and happiness. Alone among all Chinese emperors in history, Hongzhi elected to marry a single wife and keep no concubines. Palace intrigues were thus kept to an all-time low (although the plan backfired somewhat when his sole heir took up a life of prodigal indulgence).

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

Faustin-Élie Soulouque

Faustin-Élie Soulouque

Faustin-Élie Soulouque was born as a slave in Haiti in 1782.  He fought as a private during the Haitian revolution and he so distinguished himself as a soldier that he was offered an officer’s commission in the army of the newly formed Republic of Haiti.  Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century he rose up through the ranks to ultimately become a general.  Then, in 1847, Faustin was democratically elected as President of Haïti—his biography is the heroic story of a man who was born as a slave who became the leader of a nation!

Emperor Faustin I

Emperor Faustin I

Unfortunately the rot soon started to set in. Backed by a highly loyal group of military apparatchiks, President Faustin soon began murdering his political enemies.  In 1849 he suspended the Republic and proclaimed himself Emperor Faustin I of Haiti.  His subsequent reign was marked by fanatical crackdowns against real or imaginary opponents within Haiti.  Faustin’s violence became so extreme that he was accused of ritual cannibalism and drinking the blood of his enemies (long before Idi Amin was accused of similar tactics in the twentieth century).   Additionally Emperor Faustin launched a disastrous series of invasions against Spanish-controlled Santo Domingo (which is today the Dominican Republic).  The Haitian army attacked in 1849, 1850, 1855 and 1856 but was soundly defeated each time. Faustin’s dream of a unified Hispaniola never came to fruition.

In order to centralize and legitimize his brutal reign, Faustin created many different orders of nobility to confer upon cronies.  In 1858,  this strategy backfired when General Fabre Geffrard, the “Duc de Tabara” launched a full scale rebellion which pushed Emperor Faustin I from power (President Gerard returned Haiti to democratic rule and proved to be a staunch ally to the anti-slavery United States Union during the American Civil War).  Emperor Faustin tried to seek shelter in his beloved France, but was laughed at and rebuffed.  He ended up living in exile in Jamaica (although he returned to Haiti to die).

The Crown of Faustin I

The Crown of Faustin I

All of this is backstory for this somewhat overbearing crown, “the crown of Faustin I” which was made for the vampire emperor’s coronation in 1849.  The crown was richly ornamented with diamonds, emeralds, and other jewels.  After Faustin’s fall, the crown eventually became a major exhibit in the Musée du Panthéon National Haitien, however even in a museum the crown could not escape the corruption endemic to Haiti.  It was recently discovered that many of the jewels were surreptitiously pilfered from the crown of Faustin at an unknown time.  The entire crown was then removed to an unknown location by unknown entities for safekeeping (which seems to mean that it was stolen entirely)—a fitting legacy for Haiti’s Cannibal Emperor.

Crown of Bahadur Shah II (circa 1825-50)

Crown of Bahadur Shah II (circa 1825-50)

Here is the crown of Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor who lived from 1775 – 1862. The Mughals were the most powerful Indian dynasty since the (quasi-mythical) empire of Ashoka the Great and they ruled over almost the entirety of the subcontinent for three centuries, however the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were a bad time for them and their empire had blown apart into feuding principalities (and the remainder of Mughal lands was truly run by the East India Company).

Bahadur Shah II (August Schoefft, ca. 1854, oil on canvas)

Bahadur Shah II (August Schoefft, ca. 1854, oil on canvas)

Bahadur Shah II was an apt poet, calligrapher, and artist, however he was poor emperor. His father Akbar Shah II had preferred that a more warlike younger son, Mirza Jahangir, should take the throne, but the East Indian Company exiled bellicose prince so that Bahadur Shah II became Emperor in 1837.

The Red Fort in Delhi India

The Red Fort in Delhi India

Although Bahadur truly only ruled the Red Fort—the Mughal palace in Dehli, he was chosen as the nominal head of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 which had started as a mutiny by sepys (Indian troops fighting for the British) but grew into a powerful rebellion to throw the East India Company out of power in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi.  The rebellion did succeed in getting rid of the East India Company which was dissolved in 1858.  The British army crushed the revolt and turned authority over India directly to the British crown. After the emperor and his sons were captured, a British calvalry captain named Hodson had Bahadar Shah II’s sons beheaded and then presented the severed heads to the emperor as a mocking Nowrūz day gift.  Upon being presented with this ghastly present, the emperor famously and nonsensically said, “Praise be to Allah, that descendents of Timur always come in front of their fathers in this way.” He was then exiled to Rangoon and the Mughal dynasty was extinguished.  His emerald and gold crown today belongs to the Queen of England who keeps it in her royal collection.

Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson (steel engraving)

Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson (steel engraving)

Pagoda Trees in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring.  The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer?  Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen.  The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.

The Pagoda Tree or “Chinese Scholar Tree” (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists).  In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”

Seed Pods on the The Pagoda Tree (Styphnolobium japonicum)

Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth.  They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.

A memorial stone where the last Chongzhen Emperor hanged himself (the actual tree was uprooted and killed during the Cultural Revolution)

In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance.  The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family.  When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree.  The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon.  This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.

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!

To celebrate the winter solstice, Ferrebeekeeper presented a gallery of winter monarchs—icy kings, queens, and princesses who symbolically represent the frozen majesty of winter.  However European history contains a real “winter king” Frederick V (1596 – 1632), a Calvinist intellectual and mystic who was famous for building the Hortus Palatinus, one of the most renowned of Baroque gardens.  Frederick V was not called “the winter king” because he personified the savage nature of winter.  He received the nickname from enemies who derisively predicted that he would only be king of Bohemia for a single winter–and his enemies were entirely right.  The short life of Frederick V was a series of missteps, blunders, catastrophes, and regrets.  Today he is principally remembered for starting the Thirty Years War—Europe’s most destructive conflict until the age of Napoleon (or maybe until World War I).

Portrait of Frederick (Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt, 1613)

Frederick V was born as heir to the Electoral Palatinate, a powerful feudal territory whose lord was one of the hereditary electors responsible for choosing the Holy Roman Emperor.  His father, Count Palatinate Frederick IV, died young from “extravagant living” (Frederick IV was an alcoholic who left control of his lands to a regent while he sat in the palace and drank).  Thus, when Frederick V was 14 he became one of Germany’s most powerful lords—although shadows were already gathering around him.  The Golden Bull of 1356 which determined important constitutional aspects of the Holy Roman Empire stipulated that “Frederick’s closest male relative would serve as his guardian and as regent of Electoral Palatinate until Frederick reached the age of majority.”  The tangled ancestry of German nobility is evident in Frederick’s crest–so chaotically garish that it would even make Nascar proud—but it was determined that (Catholic) Count Palatine of Neuburg was his closest relative.  Frederick V’s family was traditionally Calvinist and so this solution was not acceptable.  The ensuing dispute eventually resulted in an early majority for young Ferdinand V (who became his own master at the age of 17) but it ensured a toxic legacy among the religiously divided Electors.

The Coat of Arms of Frederick V of the Palatinate...Good grief...

Frederick V also was married at the age of 16 to Elizabeth Stuart (daughter of James I) at the royal chapel at the Palace of Whitehall. In 1614, when he was 18,  Frederick attended a meeting of the Protestant Union (a group of powerful German Lords who championed the Protestant cause).  During the meeting, Frederick became ill with a fever.  Although he had displayed some initial promise as a ruler, after the illness Frederick’s character changed.  He became depressed and listless and left many critical decisions to his chancellor, Christian I, Prince of Anhalt-Bernburg (the same minister who had ruled on behalf of Frederick IV).  It was against such a background that the crown of Bohemia was thrust upon him.

Frederick V wearing the Crown of St. Wenceslas (Gerard van Honthorst, 1634, oil on canvas)

Bohemia was an elective monarchy which chose its own king, but, despite this high title, said king answered to the Holy Roman Emperor.  In fact since 1555 the Holy Roman Emperor had always also been the King of Bohemia, but thanks to religious controversy and schism sweeping Europe, Bohemia’s Protestant electors were in no mood to elect and affirm the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II.  Frederick V, callow, melancholic, and sick, was elected as king of Bohemia in 1619 amidst the turmoil of the Bohemian revolt.  Frederick was crowned with the (magical cursed) Crown of Saint Wenceslas in St. Vitus Cathedral on 4 November 1619. At the time Bohemia was not exactly a proper kingdom (having been held for so long by the Holy Roman Emperor) and Frederick V soon found he had only very limited ability to raise funds.  This became important when Emperor Ferdinand II decided to take the field to contest Bohemia.  The Emperor’s army was ably led by Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly, who seized Frederick V’s ancestral lands in the Central Palatinate before marching on Prague.  On 8 November 1620, Frederick V’s army was destroyed in the Battle of White Mountain.  Bohemia was lost, its people were cruelly ground beneath the popish & authoritarian foot of Ferdinand II, and Frederick V was forced into exile–first to Silesia and ultimately to the Hague in Holland.

The Battle of White Mountain (Peter Snayers, 1620)

Since he maintained the pageantry and splendor of a royal court while in the Hague, Frederick V quickly lavished away the huge sums of money which foreign potentates had granted him to pursue his cause.  He was unlucky too. On a trip to view the captured Spanish treasure fleet,  his boat capsized, which caused his eldest son, Frederick Henry of the Palatinate to drown (which also drowned hopes for a marriage between Frederick Henry and a Spanish princess).  Frederick V alienated and refused Gustavus Adolphus, the one sovereign who could have regained his throne and lands for him (although Gustavus would also have demanded that Frederick V become a subject).  Frederick died in1632, of a “pestilential fever”. His internal organs were buried in Oppenheim, but his preserved body was slated for final burial elsewhere.  Unfortunately, while in transit Frederick V’s dead body somehow got caught up in the Spanish assault on Frankenthal and vanished.  His final resting place is unknown (although we do know where his internal organs are interred).

Frederick V's daughter Sophia, dressed as an Indian (Painted by her sister, Louise Hollandine of the Palatinate around 1644)

Frederick’s life was ruined by reaching for a crown which should never have been his (and which, at the time, actually conferred little royal dignity or authority anyway). Yet this troubling legacy of ruination resulted in an end he would probably never have foreseen.  Frederick V had married the daughter of James I of England.  England had its own religious sectarian problems which were ended by Parliament when it signed the Act of Settlement in 1701.  The document settled the English secession for once and all on an obscure Protestant heir—Frederick’s  youngest daughter Sophia, Electress of Hanover.  Sophia, a patroness of art, philosophy, music, and culture, died in 1714, just before Queen Anne of England passed away, but her son George inherited the crown that would have been hers.  All subsequent monarchs of Great Britain were (and are) direct descendants of the unlucky Winter King.

One of the Terracotta Soldiers from the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (ca. 200 BC)

In the spring of 1974 a group of farmers digging a well in Shaanxi China about one and a half kilometers (1 mile) north of Mount Li stumbled into an amazing find. A life-sized army of terracotta soldiers numbering over 8000 was entombed in the immense necropolis of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China who lived from 259 BC – 210 BC.  However the story of the despotic Qin Shi Huang (one of history’s most remarkable figures) and his extravagant mausoleum will have to wait.  This post is not about the cruel emperor or his terracotta army, but is rather about the colors found on the terracotta figures, which were originally lacquered with a rainbow of bright colors– pink, red, green, blue, black, brown, white, and lilac.  One of the pigments discovered by archaeologists was Han purple, a manufactured pigment which was in use in China from about 1200 BC to 220 AD.  The secret to making Han purple was lost in antiquity and could not be rediscovered until modern spectroscopy helped chemists rediscover the materials used.

A Modern Reproduction of how the figures originally looked--although no two were painted the same (Credit: British Museum/C Roth)

Many scholars believe that Han purple was accidentally discovered by Taoist alchemists seeking to create synthetic jade.  The compound was a barium copper silicate which was fired for long periods of time at temperatures around 900-1000 °C.  The compound was probably produced in kilns north of the city of Xian (which was once known as Chang’an and was the capital city of China during the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties).

Modern Han Purple Pigment

Han Blue was a dark bluish purple/indigo.  It became more purplish over time as the barium copper silicate deteriorated and red copper oxides were formed.  The pigment was used for beads, ceramic vessels, paintings, and for octagonal pigment sticks (which may have had a ceremonial value in their own right).

Han purple had a very similar companion compound–Han blue—which was also a barium copper silicate.  Because of certain quirks of chemistry, Han blue was more lightfast than than Han purple and had fungicidal properties to boot.  This allowed Han blue to last for the long centuries, whereas Han purple is now known mostly from faded traces. Han purple was not fungicidal and compounds (namely oxalates) produced by certain long-lived lichen caused the pigment to turn into light blue powder.

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

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