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Idolatrous Floundering (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood with polymer figures and panel paintings

The art of the middle ages was meant to be viewed the way motion pictures are in the modern world. By painstakingly combining different disciplines (sculpting, painting, jewelsmithing, architecture, and calligraphy), medieval artists created emotionally fraught works which told an ever-changing story. The hidden figures, complex allusions, and frame-by-frame narrative progression invited extended contemplation.

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Idolatrous Floundering (detail)

The sculpture “Idolatrous Floundering” is crafted to mimic these epic devotional artworks. Yet, whereas medieval art was meant to highlight the centrality of hierarchical religion in people’s lives, this sculpture apes such forms in order to examine the ways in which society uses emotional hooks to manipulate people for political or economic reasons. There is no sacred miracle at the heart of the hooked fish, just a dangerous trap. The strange addled worshipers and the natural world itself all stand in peril from this deadly devotion to false idols.

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Idolatrous Flounder (detail)

Like the artisans of yesteryear, I carefully sawed, carved, sanded, and engraved the elaborate frame (and using a lathe to turn the finials). Then I painted the panels and hand-sculpted (and baked) all of the little polymer figures. Hopefully the jewel-like work possesses some of the troubling power of devotional artwork, but I also hope it won’t serve as a reliquary for a world ruined and used up by desperate adulation of coercive seductions.

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Lydia Ordering the Death of Her Sons (Loyset Liédet and Pol Fruit, ca. 1467–72), Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment,

Let’s take a break from parade floats, summer flowers, and ice cream artwork to renew our appreciation of all things Gothic.  Today’s post involves taking a step back in time to check out the footwear of yore–namely those astonishing pointy Gothic shoes which you see in medieval illumination (like the horrifying Game Of Thrones-ish painting above).  Those shoes don’t just exist in ancient artworks and period dramas, specialty cobblers still make them. Here are some photos of Gothic-style footwear which you can buy right now online!

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Long-toe Suede Poulaines from armstreet.com

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I like all of those, but that green pair is particularly splendid!  I would totally wear those if I was accepted into Hogwarts or dragged into a time portal.  But what is the story with those toes?  Why did lordly fops of the 12th-15th century wear these extreme pointy elvish-looking shoes?  The fashion spread throughout northwest Europe, but it originated in Poland (which was going through a sort of golden age) which is why such shoes are called are called “Poulaines” or “Crakows.”  The toes were originally filled with moss or other pre-industrial packing materials in order to hold their shape.  As the toes became more elaborate and more curved, architectural internal elements made of cork or leather became necessary so they would hold their shape.

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I wish I could tell you some satisfying tale of how the pointy toes poked venomous snakes out of the way or helped lords walk on tippy-toe over muddy peasants or something, however, the reason footwear looked as it did then, was much the same as now: namely impractical shoes betokened status. A vast pan-European network of conspicuous consumption existed in the high middle ages and it was a big part of how the elites “kept score.”

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So Crakows with their long poulain toes were apparently the Manolo Blahniks of their day.  I will keep looking for more to the story, but it seems like this might be a classic case of the things we do for fashion.  Don’t worry though, we are not done with Gothic shoes: there is more to come from eras much more recent and familiar.  Just stay tuned to Ferrebeekeeper and keep on your toes!

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The Crown of Princess Blanche

England had a great treasury of medieval crowns and ancient jewels…which did not survive the excesses of the English Civil War (it’s almost as though having 41% of your country utterly despise the other 53% is somehow dangerous).  Yet two English Medieval crowns have survived into the modern era because they were elsewhere at the time.  Ferrebeekeeper blogged about one–the Coronet of Margaret of York.  Here is the other, the Crown of Princess Blanche, AKA “The Palatine Crown” or “The Bohemian Crown.” This crown is the oldest surviving royal crown affiliated with England, and probably dates to 1370–80 AD.

As the name indicates, the crown was an accessory of Princess Blanche of England, (daughter of King Henry IV) which she brought from England for her marriage to Louis III, Elector of Palatine in 1402.  Manufactured of gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, enamel and pearls, the little crown measures 18 centimeters (7 inches) high by 18 centimeters deep. It has remained an heirloom of the House of Wittelsbach ever since Blanche’s marriage.  Maybe the beautiful coronet helps to make up for the exceedingly boring Wittelsbach coat of arms which looks like it came with a generic knight from a knock-off playset (all apologies to the Duke of Bavaria–if he ever commissions some flounder art, I will find something nice to say about his dull heraldry).

The Coat of Arms of House Wittelsbach…it’s a good thing these guys weren’t in the fictional “Game of Thrones” (although they were in some real things like that)

Wikipedia describes the crown’s surprising complexity as follows:

The crown is made up of 12 hexagonal rosettes on the base each supporting a gold stem topped by a lily. The stems and lilies alternate in size and height. They are heavily jewelled versions of the fleur de lys (lily flower) that was popular for medieval crowns.[3] In the middle of the hexagons, which have enamelled white flowers overlaid onto a translucent blue or red background, is a pale blue sapphire, 11 of which are oval and 1 is hexagonal. Each point is decorated with alternating rubies and clusters of four pearls that have a small diamond at the centre. In addition to diamonds, pearls, and sapphires, the lilies are also decorated with emeralds.

When I was writing about Margaret of York’s coronet, I said that it was the finer of the two English medieval crowns…and I still believe that, but only because it is such a lovely piece of jewelry, not because this crown is in any way inferior or unattractive.  Indeed, I think the English Medieval style of goldsmithing might be my favorite style of goldsmithing–the apogee of the jeweler’s art in terms of form and color (although the Tang Dynasty goldsmiths also have a claim on my heart).  Anyway, now you know what to get me if you happen to be a well-heeled time traveler who loves this blog.

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Did you grow up playing adventure games and reading fantasy literature (a la “Dragonlance”, “Lord of the Rings”, and “Harry Potter”)?  Well if so, you are familiar with a standardized stable of fantasy creatures from medieval lore–familiar mythical beasts such as Manticores, griffins, dragons, and trolls.  The creatures which didn’t come from classical mythology originated in bestiaries–medieval fieldguides of astonishing creatures.  These treatises didn’t just have made-up monsters they also had a moralizing flavor…and hopefully some illustrations!

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However there were some beasts in the bestiaries that didn’t make it past the red pencil of Tolkien and Gygax–like the unhappy subject of today’s post, the bonnacon.  The Bonnacon comes down to us from no less a source than Pliny the Elder (who thought it lived in Paeonia (which is modern Macedonia/Bulgaria).  The bonnacon was the comic relief monster in medieval bestiaries.  The medieval manuscript writers loved it because of its scatalogical hijinks, however the mythical animal’s means of defending itself was so uncouth that the prim myth-makers of the present left it out of the worlds which they built.

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I will leave it to the Aberdeen Bestiary to describe the creature to you in its own words.  I have stolen the translation from Wikipedia, but the page is immediately above this paragraph, if you want to translate the Latin yourself.

In Asia an animal is found which men call bonnacon. It has the head of a bull, and thereafter its whole body is of the size of a bull’s with the maned neck of a horse. Its horns are convoluted, curling back on themselves in such a way that if anyone comes up against it, he is not harmed. But the protection which its forehead denies this monster is furnished by its bowels. For when it turns to flee, it discharges fumes from the excrement of its belly over a distance of three acres, the heat of which sets fire to anything it touches. In this way, it drives off its pursuers with its harmful excrement.

The poor bonnacon thus seems like a beast which ate too much spicy Taco Bell.   This was obviously a source of much glee to the illuminators and scribes of yore, but it was too much for J.K. Rowling.  Even fantasy beasts have to get with the times and so the bonnacon has been left behind in the dark ages.  Even if it didn’t make it into adventure books and golden tales of magical enchantment, I wonder if there isn’t a place for the monster in contemporary music or modern stand-up.  This thing might fit right into Andrew Dice Clay’s act and who can doubt that it would naturalize instantly into Eminem’s lyrics.

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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

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Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

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Today, through the magic of the internet, Ferrebeekeeper is visiting a graveyard halfway around the world in Armenia (alas, I am visiting through words and images only; as always, my body remains stubbornly in New York City shackled to an office chair and a bunch of elusive dreams).  This exquisite spot is Noratus Cemetery, beside Lake Sevan, in eastern Armenia, not far from the Azerbaijan border.  This region has been a crossroads for people for millennia.  Although Noratus is today a small village, during the Middle Ages it was a large prosperous town.  A bronze-aged hillfort stands nearby. Prehistoric travelers passed through this region on humankind’s great migrations, and the region is not far from the first palace civilizations of the ancient world. Persians, Greeks, Romans, mysterious steppe peoples of all sorts, Turks, Mongols, Russians, caravan folk from east and west, Chinese, Soviets, and contemporary world travelers have all passed through the region.  However, this post is not a history of Armenia (thank goodness: I could never begin to explain the beautiful tangled chronicle of that crossroad nation): we are talking about Noratus Cemetery.  The oldest stones in the complex date back to the 10th century, but the cemetery has been utilized off-and-on right up to the present.

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The most famous stones of Noratus are the khachkars—the cross stones.  These are intricately carved stele with Christian crosses carved upon them in syncretic Asian styles.   Once upon a time (by which I mean, in the nineteen nineties), the greatest concentration of ancient khachkars was in the Armenian cemetery in Julfa (in Azerbaijan), but the Azerbaijan government destroyed these beautiful ancient works in order to further some self-aggrandizing lie or another, so today, the largest concentration of medieval khachkars is in…Noratus cemetery.

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You can see here how the maelstrom of cultures has influenced khachkar makers from over the centuries.  The mysterious gravestones look, by turns, Scythian, Romanesque, Persian, Indian, and even Jewish: yet they are none of these styles (although they are influenced by each)—they are Armenian.  But beyond the ancient exquisite graves, and the Romanesque chapels, look at the mountains and the lake beyond.  I have stolen these pictures from around the internet so I don’t really know what is in each (apparently the cemetery is easy to visit (if you are in the hinterlands of eastern Armenia) but badly labeled so it might take some specialists in Eastern medieval art to unravel the meanings and eras of these stones anyway, but their artistic excellence and spiritual splendor is readily evident.

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We are coming up to Halloween time and Ferrebeekeeper always features a special theme week to celebrate the spooky season.  Start getting ready for next week’s dark excitement!  For today though I want to present a half-spooky, half-beautiful Gothic post (since it has been too long since we visited that category).

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One of my favorite things are fountains—the aesthetic (and, usually, the actual) focal point of gardens and town squares.  Fountains represent vitality, comfort, and healing—they are the place where people go to quench their spiritual thirst (and, you know, get water).

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The most famous fountains tend to be in Baroque, modern, and Greco-Roman styles, but there are also many lovely Gothic fountains throughout Europe.  Some of these are almost wholly religious in character, but others are spidery and ornate or feature dragons, monster, and gargoyles.

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Here is a little gallery of random Gothic fountains.  Most of them are real, but it seems like a couple may have been built by computer programmers to enliven online worlds of magic and fantasy.  They are all exciting and interesting and they provide an early taste of Halloween fun (and hopefully quench your need for Gothic hydration).

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This is the Essen crown. A magnificent crown of gold (alloyed with silver) carved and/or cabochon jewels and natural pearls. It is the oldest surviving lily-formed crown and it has been in the possession of the Essen Cathedral/monastery practically forever. Despite its great beauty and obvious historical interest, I have not written about it because we don’t actually know much about it and because its long existence has been somewhat dull. During the early 20th century scholars speculated that it was the childhood crown of Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, a scion of the Ottonian line which ruled the Holy Roman Empire after the famous Carolingians. The story runs that young Otto gifted the crown to Essen at the end of the 10th century (ca 999 AD) where it was fitted upon the brow of a statue of the Virgin.
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Modern scholarship and careful analysis by historically-minded jewelsmiths have cast doubt on this theory, however, and now it is believed that the crown was made in the early 11th century specifically as a votive crown for the statue of the Virgin. Since it did not represent worldly power (and since it was well-guarded) it passed long uneventful centuries there without lots of murders, thefts, or possession by Jimmy Carter. Even if the history is somewhat dull, the crown is certainly not. It is very lovely to look at and represents an apogee of Saxon goldworking. I hope its appearance (or otherworldly ancient power) moves you even if its story of sitting around a church for 900 years is not necessarily so exciting.

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At Ferrebeekeeper we have featured all sorts of Gothic things: Gothic beds, Gothic clocks, Visigoths, and Gothic cathedrals.  Here is “El puente romano” of Cangas de Onís (a town in Asturias in Northwest Spain).  Although the bridge, which crosses the Sella River is known as “the Roman Bridge,” its name is a misnomer.  The stone structure was probably constructed at the end of the 13th century.  Stylistically it is a transition from late Romanesque towards Gothic (although I guess a stickler for bridge architecture would probably classify it as Romanesque).   The two large arches on either side of the cambered central arch are of different sizes.  It is certainly an exceedingly beautiful structure: I would love to walk across it…if I am ever sojourning in Northwest Spain.

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“Jiajing on his State Barge” (Artists Unknown, ca. 1538, ink and watercolor on silk)

The Ming Dynasty was a hereditary dynastic empire which ruled China for 276 years between 1368 AD and 1644 AD.  This regime was lumbered with an exceedingly conservative and cautious weltanschauung, which caused Ming leaders to walk back some of the empire’s greatest accomplishments (like astonishing journeys of discovery and prodigious economic growth—both of which were nipped in the bud).  Arguably this unbending Confucianism ultimately led to the downfall of the Ming as well (although the dynasty was undoubtedly undone by wide a host of factors).  However this same core traditionalism also made the Ming dynasty one of the longest and most stable empires in world history. The Ming dynasty achieved a number of cultural and social high watermarks which were not exceeded anywhere for a very long time.

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I was hired by a national magazine to write a little biography of the founder of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, the Hongwu Emperor, whose meteoric rise from penniless beggar to the most powerful man on Earth is scarcely comprehensible.   Indeed… Zhu’s history apparently really wasn’t comprehensible to the editors of the magazine, who never published my piece (although they certainly delighted in making me rewrite it and then editing it into incoherence). Naturally, I blame this failure almost entirely on the ignorance, cupidity, and general moral failings of these self-same editors.  However, in their defense, Chinese history is a baffling maelstrom of horrifying wars, subtle political machinations, and names which are transliterated differently into English in different sources (not to mention the lives of countless millions and millions and millions of people).  It is difficult to make any sense of any of it without knowing Chinese, an ancient exquisitely beautiful language of perfectly baffling tonal sounds and thousands of impossible-to-memorize logograms.

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Chinese porcelain vase, Zhengde mark but from the Wanli (1573-1619)

All of which is to say, this biography is now mine and I am going to publish it here this week as the centerpiece of Ferrebeekeeper’s “Ming Dynasty Week” a celebration of the art, literature, and history of one of my absolute favorite eras.  This will include a special look at the famous ceramics which are synonymous with the period as well an examination of some of the less-well-known but equally dazzling highlights of this amazing time.  Get ready to learn about all sorts of Ming things.  This week is going to be great!

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