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The Coronet of Margaret of York

The Coronet of Margaret of York

Two years ago, Ferrebeekeeper featured the crown of the renowned king Henry VIII of England. To my eyes it has been the prettiest crown so far featured here…but it’s fake, of course. All of the real historical medieval crowns from English history were melted down and sold in the aftermath of the English Civil War (which ended in 1651) when Oliver Cromwell and the protectorate took over the United Kingdom and ruled with a puritanical iron fist. Well, technically all of the actual medieval crowns from English history were destroyed…except for two. Above is the finer of the two, the coronet of Margaret of York, who, though never a queen, became duchess of Burgundy, one of the richest and most important ducal territories in all of Europe. This crown survived England’s tumultuous history by the simple expedient of not being in England (which sort of describes Margaret of York as well).

Anonymous portrait of Margaret of York, ca. 1468, Louvre

Anonymous portrait of Margaret of York, ca. 1468, Louvre

Margaret was born the daughter of England’s most powerful lord, Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, who served as lord protector of England during the madness of Henry VI (the pious but weak king who briefly ruled both France and England). Two of Margaret’s brothers were kings of England– Edward IV and Richard III (famous forever as a Shakespeare villain, whose remains were rediscovered 3 years ago under a parking lot in England). Margaret’s personal history of conniving nobles, kings, wars, alliances, betrothals, marriages, murders, horsing accidents, scurrilous sexual rumors, and complex treaties would make George. R. R. Martin pull out his beard in frustration, although Wikipedia amazingly manages to summarize it all in approximately 3 incomprehensible pages. When Margaret was married to Charles the Bold (whose untimely death precipitated two centuries of major wars) she wore this coronet. Burgundy was known for its wealth and extravagance. During her wedding the city was decorated with ornamental pelicans which spewed wine on the crowds!

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Margaret’s coronet is tiny—a mere 12 centimeters (five inches) in diameter and height, but it is richly “ornamented with multi-coloured enamel, pearls, gems set in white roses, a diamond cross, the coats of arms of England and Burgundy, and letters forming the name: margarit(a) de (y)o(r)k. Margaret of York.” The reason the beautiful object has survived history in such good shape is that Margaret visited the Imperial city of Aachen in the summer of 1474 and donated her coronet to the statue of Mary in the great cathedral there. The little crown has remained in the cathedral’s treasury for the ensuing 541 years. It should be noted that the meticulous Germans have also kept the original leather case (which makes the crown more valuable for serious collectors?).

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

Flight into Egypt (Giotto, circa 1320, fresco)

January 14th was a fanciful medieval holiday known as the “Feast of the Ass.” The feast commemorates the flight into Egypt, a biblical episode from Christ’s (very) early career. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea heard a prophecy that a greater king than himself had just been born in Palestine. The king launched a murderous anti-infant pogrom to rid himself of competition before his rival could reach adulthood (an ugly spate of newborn killing known in Christianity as “the Massacre of the innocents”). Mary and Joseph fled Palestine with the baby Jesus. The little family traveled down into Roman Egypt with the exhausted post-partum Mary and her baby traveling on an ass (you can read about this directly in the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-23)). It was not the only episode in the Bible to portray Jesus on donkey back. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem (and to his ultimate death) he was mounted on a white ass. The medieval feast gently celebrated the donkey’s importance to Christianity with banqueting, sermons about the biblical events, and pageantry. A beautiful girl bearing a child would ride a donkey through town to the church. Thereafter the donkey stood beside the altar during the sermon. The congregation participated in the fun by answering the priest’s questions and observances by shouting “hee haw” (or whatever donkeys say in France–where the celebration was most often observed).

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Master of the Female Half-Lengths, ca. 1530s, oil on panel)

In our age of internet and celebrity worship, every day is the feast of the ass, but I wanted to write about the medieval celebration (which fell out of favor and vanished in the fifteenth century) so I could share these three beautiful paintings of the flight into Egypt. I also wanted this episode to be an introduction to tomorrow’s post about the donkey—for the poor animals are terribly underappreciated—being so disparagingly associated with human posteriors and loutish individuals. Additionally the donkey’s place in the world has been taken over by modern engines, and fancy patrician folk have not held on to them as a status symbol (as happened to the horse). It’s worth taking a moment and remembering that donkeys are very sacred in Christianity and have a better scriptural claim to being the animal of Christ than any other creature other than perhaps the sheep. More about asses tomorrow!

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

The Flight into Egypt (Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1500, oil on panel)

 

 

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?

Venetian painting owes an immense debt to Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 – 1516 AD).  Not only was he the teacher of Giorgione and Titian, Bellini’s sensuous and atmospheric painting style colored the work of all the subsequent Venetian masters of the 16th century. Bellini’s figures have a grace and dignity lacking in earlier Venetian art: their emotions seem real and profound. He was also one of my favorite painter of mysterious and evocative backgrounds.

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Here is an exquisite Pietà by Bellini which highlights his artistic mastery. Fields of exquisite flowers (of many species and types) lead the eye back to winding roads and sinuous city walls. Looming across the entire background is Jerusalem, mysterious and lovely (and looking suspiciously like a Renaissance Italian city-state). Beyond the holy city, great mountains and cliffs march off into the horizon. Yet all of the beauty of the background is still. The roads are empty. Jerusalem seems deserted. In the foreground, Mary stares at the dead body of her son with desolate eyes. The savior is dead and the whole world has literally stopped.

Mary Magdalene (Carlo Crivelli, ca. 1487, tempera on panel)

Here is another painting by the underappreciated 15th century master Carlo Crivelli (whose enigmatic biography is sketched in this post concerning a beautiful Madonna and Child which he painted around 1480).  Crivelli’s paintings have been called grotesque—and there is no denying that there is something alien, and disturbing—and thrilling–about his works.  Maybe that is why he is so often out of favor in the art world compared to his more admired Quattrocento contemporaries (although his paintings have lingered on for more than half a millenium in our greatest museums and collections).

In this extremely vertical composition, a richly attired Mary Magdalene proffers a golden jar of ointment to the viewer with haughty languor.  With her right hand she lifts the jeweled vessel of salve while her left hand lifts up the pink folds of her exquisite gown. As always in Crivelli’s work, the rich details and dazzling colors pull our eyes around the composition to the weird details.  At the bottom is a garland of dull faced putti with insect wings who rest their heads on elephant-headed vine creatures. Sumptuous flowers with beguiling petals (but grasping roots and piercing thorns) frame Mary’s gilded head.  The overly ornate golden filigree of her chemise resembles fungi and lichen.  Her jewel crusted hair is so perfectly coiffed, it resembles the work of a Etruscan jeweler rather than actual human hair.

The weird details continuously distract us from the crowning achievement of the painting: Mary’s beautiful Byzantine face with sloe eyes, arch brows, and tiny chiseled mouth.  Here at last there is humanity and true beauty, but distorted through the alien  mannerism of the painters of Constantinople (which finally fell to the Turks in Crivelli’s lifetime).  The whole composition reeks with the perfume of unknown realms.  The prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair is entirely subsumed by the riches of a fabled past.  Renaissance art turned toward the human, but Crivelli’s heart was always with the Byzantines, looking toward impossible otherworldly splendor.

This is Das Paradiesgärtleina, a superb gothic panel painting created in 1410 by an unknown German artist known only as the “Upper Rhenish Master”.  Various Saints are oriented around Baby Jesus in a lovely walled garden.  The Virgin Mary is at the top left reading a book.  To her left Saint Dorothy plucks cherries (then, as now, symbolic of purity) from a stylized cherry tree.  Saint Barbara draws clear water from a font, as Saint Catherine helps Baby Jesus play a psalter.  To the right St. George sits on the grass with a small dragon dead beside him.  He is earnestly talking to the Archangel Michael who has a black demon chained at his feet.  St. Oswald, leaning on a tree trunk, seems almost to serve as St. George’s squire.  It has been surmised that this painting might depict a knight (in the guise of St. George) entering into heaven.

The real delight of the painting lies in its lovely details.  This painting carefully and individually depicts over 27 plants, 12 species of bird, and two insects. Very few paintings depict nature with such precision.

Here is a list of the identified plants:

Aquilegia
Veronica
Strawberry
Alchemilla
Daisy
Wallflower
Vinca
Cherry
Clover
Lily
Snowflake
Lily of the Valley
Malva
Oxeye daisy
Dianthus
Paeonia
Rose
Primula veris
Iris
Mustard
Red deadnettle
Violet
Plantago
Chrysanthemum
Aster
Hypericum
Matthiola

Here is a list of the birds:

Common Kingfisher
Great Tit
Eurasian Bullfinch
Golden Oriole
Chaffinch
European Robin
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Bohemian Waxwing
European Goldfinch
Long-tailed Tit
Blue Tit
Hoopoe

The work is painted in a tradition of Maria im Rosenhag (Mary in the rose bower), but the Upper Rhenish master has made the convention his own by presenting a garden where virtue and joy, personified by the holy family and the saints, exert easy control over the natural and the supernatural alike.

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