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Please accept my apologies for not publishing the promised Good Friday post when I said I would.  I am afraid I had a spring cold, and was just struggling to get through the day.  Now that it is Easter Sunday, we can put any sort of Jesus-themed artwork we want, though and we don’t have to have a ghastly crucifixion scene.  So behold: this is “Triptych with the Miracles of Christ” by the Master of the Legend of St. Catherine and his (?) workshop.

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The piece is a superb vision of the life and miracles of Jesus…and of day-to-day life in late Medieval Flanders.  It was completed sometime between 1491 and 1495 (and it is worth imagining some team of earnest painters toiling over it at the exact time that Columbus and his crew were making their way across the Atlantic.  There are nearly endless things to see in the picture (like all the endearing and strangely modern pet dogs in the foreground) but I am afraid I could not download a high-res image, so you will have to visit this link if you wish to pore over the composition (and you really should wish for that).  The background is as interesting as the foreground!  Look at this exquisite Flemish city (which also looks strangely modern).

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The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) was a glorious golden age of China when trade brought enormous prosperity to China and cosmopolitan city culture flourished.  This exquisite wine cup came from the Tang capital, Chang’an, around 750 AD (the chalice was excavated in the city of Xi’an–which is Chang’an’s modern name–in 1957). According to the census of 742 AD,  Chang’an had 1,960,188 people living in the metropolitan area (which included smaller suburban cities within the larger city).  Such numbers make Chang’an the largest metropolis of its day (the other contenders would have been Baghdad and Constantinople, which were both about half the size).

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This year, I want to talk more about Chang’an and about some of history’s other great super-cities.  They tell us about the roots of contemporary urban culture (more than half of the world’s people today live in a city) and they maybe afford us a peak at the great cities of the future.  For now though let us just savor the details of this solid gold goblet.  Look at the birds and the design elements which come from coastal China and Central Asia! Cities ideally combine the best aspects of different groups of people and different cultures. MY home city, New York City certainly does that, on its good days, when it is not squeezing people to death for nickels.  Speaking of home, this chalice is currently in New York, at the incomparable Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Enjoy the goldsmith’s birds and the flowers–we will be back in Tang-era Chang’an for a real look around a few posts from now.  And if, like me, you live in a city, start looking at it with a fresh critical eye.  Cities are an even bigger part of the future than of the past, and we are going to need to make them better.  Golden cups are not the only place where an idealized natural world of handmade beauty belongs…

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The Otomi people are an indigenous Mesoamerican people of the Mexican Plateau.  During the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the Otomi allied with the Spanish against the Aztecs (since the Aztecs were a hated upstart empire oppressing and enslaving them). Otomi populations practiced (and continue to practice) shamanism.  The sacred spirit animals of the shaman’s spirit journey take a central position in the most characteristic artforms of the Otomi—which consists of exquisite embroidered animals in dazzling colors.  This is the subject of today’s post because…well look at these textile artworks!  I just innately love them.  They are masterpieces.  The colorful animals seem to come to extravagant life on the elaborately sewn panels.

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In these embroidered medallions and picture squares, fantasy birds, fish, quadrupeds, and insects embroidered out of brilliant stripes swirl together among equally colorful flowers and vines. Most of the creatures seem to be based off of familiar domestic animals like burros, chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and bees—but the farm creatures are turning into each other and exchanging characteristics and identities.  I am a bit surprised that Ferrebeekeeper has only just found out about Otomi art….

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It isn’t like I went to the Mexican national art gallery and cherry-picked a few hallowed masterpieces from the walls either.  Most of these beautiful examples were for sale on the internet by anonymous living artists and artisans whose work I like better than basically anything on sale right now in Chelsea for a thousand times more.  I could have one of these amazing handmade artworks if I possessed…35 American dollars?  How can such a beautiful thing cost less than a dvd of Fifty Shades of Grey?  People who claim that the market is all-knowing should take note (and people who love beautiful art should be taking out their wallets).

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Longwood Gardens Outdoor light display (by Daniel Traub)

Longwood Gardens Outdoor light display (by Daniel Traub)

I’m busy sprucing up the ol’ homestead for my holiday party and putting the finishing touches on my winter solstice decorations.  As I was hanging festive lanterns in the denuded winter garden—which is empty of greenery save for the holly, the yew, and the hellebores—my minded drifted off to my favorite formal garden.  Back when I was a sullen adolescent, my family would frequently visit the princely Longwood Gardens, a summer estate of the inhumanly rich Dupont family, monopolists who controlled a world-spanning empire of industrial chemicals.  Although the Duponts are probably busy to this day despoiling things and making cheap indispensable products, they have long since turned over their formal gardens to a trust which runs them for the public benefit.  Longwood Gardens are, weirdly, located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, “the Mushroom Capital of the World!”  You can visit them any time (during business hours) if you have the fortitude to head to Pennsylvania.

Longwood Gardens Christmas

Longwood Gardens Christmas

Anyway, looking at the wintry ruins of my own garden, I wondered whether Longwood Gardens escapes the ravages of the season, and, if so, how?  Well, as you have probably guessed from the pictures, the professionals at Longwood have an exquisite winter garden!  They landscape outside with conifers, topiaries, and lights.  Inside their acres of climate controlled greenhouses, they are free to run wild and create whatever horticultural extravagances they can devise.  So, as a holiday treat, check out these exquisite garden photos!  Um, in my own garden, I put up some sparkly ornaments…and the holly really does look pretty.  I guess we’ll get back to all of the other plants in spring…

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I mean, yeah, that’s great and all…if exquisite views of an otherworldly paradise is your thing, but can they make chocolate pie with whipped topping?  Happy winter solstice!

The Huntington Botanical Gardens

Yesterday’s post concerning Pluto, Greco-Roman lord of the underworld contained a photograph of a beautiful two-thousand year old statue as well as one of the greatest and most harrowing of classical myths–but I am afraid it incorrectly tinted my recent trip to California with somber shades.  So today I have decided to describe the roses from the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino (just outside Pasadena).  This garden was once the home of a railroad baron who grabbed control of the steel rails which tied California together.  He was a rare book collector (which I will get back to on Monday) and a lover of gardens.

A Tiny Portion of the Chinese Garden at the Huntington Gardens

All of the gardens at the Huntington were unreasonably lovely.  The grounds contained both a large Japanese garden and a magnificent Chinese garden.  I didn’t even get to see the world famous desert garden and I am still regretting it.  However the real highlight for me was the rose garden.  Pasadena styles itself as the city of roses. The city hosts a rose parade and some sort of huge rose bowl for college sportsmen.  There is a reason for all of the fanfare—the roses everywhere in Pasadena and the towns nearby were beautiful. But the roses at the Huntington Botanical Garden were ineffably transcendentally gorgeous.  It was the most splendid rose garden I have ever seen.

Some of the Roses at the Huntington Gardens

Here is the description of the garden as lifted wholesale from the Huntington website:

The three and a half acre rose garden was designed by Myron Hunt and first planted by William Hertrich as a display garden in 1908. In the 1970s, the garden was reorganized as a “collection garden” with more than 1,200 cultivars (approx 4,000 individual plants) arranged historically to trace the development of roses from ancient to modern times beginning with the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

The entrance pathway leads to an 18th-century French stone tempietto and statue, “Love, the Captive of Youth,” encircled by “French Lace” roses. The beds north of the arbor next to the Shakespeare Garden have a paved walk, and feature Tea and China roses and their descendants, first introduced into Europe from China around 1900.

On the south side of the rose arbor are nineteenth-century shrub roses, descended from old European varieties. Climbing and rambling roses—from all periods and groups—grow on the arbors, arches, and pergolas.

The central part of the garden contains Hybrid Teas, Floribundas, Polyanthas, and miniatures, with separate beds for classic pre-1920 hybrid teas and for roses from the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Other beds feature roses introduced since the 1950s and introductions from abroad, including recent plantings of roses from India.

This somewhat dry text indeed explains the basics of the garden, but, alas, there is a terrible frustration in trying to convey the true nature of such a place.  The roses were all perfect.  Each blossom was the size of a dinner plate and every rose was blooming.  By some magical circumstance we visited the garden at peak season.  The heady scent of roses wafted on the warm breeze and time seemed to dilate. Yesterday I wrote about the mythical gardens of the underworld.  Today I am writing about the gardens of paradise—which, somewhat surprisingly, are real and are located just to the southwest of Pasadena.

The Temple of Love from the Rose Garden at Huntington Gardens

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