You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Medieval’ tag.

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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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Here is a mid 14th century crown which was “found in Hungary” (if there are exquisite gold and ruby medieval crowns just lying around there, perhaps I am in the wrong place).   The crown was probably made by French jewelers who, then as now, were among the best in the world. The crown consists of eight ornamental lily segments held together by hinges (pinned with twining vine-leaf ornaments).

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The internet feels that this is the crown of Elizabeth Kotromanic of Bosnia.  Elizabeth was a classic “Game of Thrones” style noblewoman who wedded King Louis I of Hungary and then also became Queen of Poland when Louis’ uncle died. Initially a powerless consort, she surrounded herself with ambitious nobles and worked her way into such a position that, upon her husband’s death, she became the queen regent of Poland, Hungary, and Croatia (and de-facto ruler of southern Italy, Bosnia, Serbia, Wallachia, and Moldavia!). Alas, Elizabeth was good at pitting nobles against each other, but she failed to rule well or carefully and she was captured and strangled by her many enemies.

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This crown was seemingly donated in her name to the shrine of St. Simeon shrine in Zadar (so it wasn’t exactly lying in a truck stop bathroom or a forest glade, like I made it sound in the first sentence). Whether this crown was hers or not, it is certainly a winsome and beautiful piece, but, like all crowns, it looks a little cursed to me. Maybe it is better if Saint Simeon hangs on to it.

Ok, I apologize for this week.  A friend of mine generously agreed to teach me 3D computer assisted design on Thursday, and I had a cold last night and just fell asleep after work–so there were only a measly 3 posts this week!  To make up for it, I will put up this week’s sketches tomorrow in a special Sunday post—so tune in then (and bring all of your friends and loved ones too!) but first, here is a rare Saturday post–a weird jeremiad about guilds.

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“Guilds” you are saying,” didn’t those die off in the middle ages? We live in a glistening modern world of opportunities now!”  Actually, guilds didn’t die at all—they have morphed and proliferated in ways both beneficial and detrimental to society.  We should think seriously about this and ask whether the ambiguous benefits of guild outweigh their unfair anti-competitive nature.

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First let’s quickly go back to the Middle Ages when there were two competing ways of learning professional trades.  You could go to a guild, where weird old men made you do sit on a bench and do menial tasks for twenty years while you competed in pointless status games with your cruel peers (and underwent fearsome hazing).  Assuming you survived all of this, you became part of the guild, and participated in its quasi-monopoly on trading fish with the Baltic, making oakum ropes, scrivening, alchemy, accounting, or whatever. Savvy readers will see the roots of the AMA, the Bar Association, and even our great universities and trade schools (and maybe our secondary schools) in this model.

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The other way was the master/apprentice system.  This is now most familiar to us through wizards, kung fu warriors, artists, Jedi, and other fictional characters—which is to say it has not proliferated in the modern world.  A wise master would take a favorite student under his/her wing and teach them the ropes.  This system had the advantage of being better and faster than the guild system—it can truly foster rare genius– but it had all of the Jesus/Peter, Jedi/Sith, father/son problems familiar to us through fiction. Namely the master frequently held on too long, became evil, started giving sermons in the wilderness, or otherwise went bad: or the apprentice decided they did not want to wait but were ready to paint naked ladies instead of mixing paint…or to enchant brooms or to fight the howling serpent gang.

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During the nineteenth century, law and medicine were learned like gunsmithing, coopering, and hat-making: through apprentices.  It worked fine for law but not for medicine (although I am not sure 19th century medicine was worthwhile anyway).   Today we have universities and professional schools controlling all the ways upward in society (provided you have adequate money and have passed through endless mandarin-style standardized tests).  It is making society sclerotic.  Anybody who has spent time in a contemporary office will instantly recognize the parochial narrow-minded professional mindset encountered at every turn.  We have a society made up of narrowly educated reactionaries monopolizing each profession. Time to open things up a bit with a different model.  The apprentice system worked well in the past.  Let’s try it again (and get rid of these smug gate-keeping professional schools in the process).

Nothing could go wrong here!

Nothing could go wrong here!

Frankly I suspect that Doctors alone should have guilds.  It is the only discipline important enough and complicated enough to warrant the stranglehold protectionism of a professional association.  The great medical associations make use of master/apprentice-style relationships later on in a doctor’s training anyway, and they have proven themselves responsible guardians of their sacred trust in numerous other ways.  Lawyers, florists, morticians, artists, clowns, accountants, underwater welders, actuaries and other dodgy modern professionals should compete through the open market. If you want to be a businessman find a businessman and train with him until you know enough to defeat him in open business combat. If you want to be a florist or a computer programmer, find a master florist or a master programmer.  Disciplines like geology and engineering could keep pseudoscientists and frauds out of their ranks with continuing brutal tests.

Nice Digital Serpent!

Nice Digital Serpent!

Of course it is possible that this whole post is merely an angry reaction to troubles in my own extremely subjective profession, art. Contemporary art schools are thoroughly worthless in every way. Back during the 50s and 60s, a bunch of doofy political theorists took over and hijacked art (which has many unpleasant similarities to political theory…but which is not political theory). Art has been a meaningless game of celebrity and identity-politics ever since.  It is sadly devoid of the master craftsman aspect which once made it great. I didn’t learn art at a famous art school.  I learned from a great master painter…who went a bit bonkers and moved off to China to practice veganism and sit on a mountain. That is the way things should be! This business of going to Yale or RISDI needs to be thrown on history’s scrapheap.

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Purpureus

Purpureus

Purpureus is a Latin word which came directly into English in the 14th century (although not a lot of English speakers say it as an adjective these days). In Latin it means “brilliant, radiant shining” or “wearing purple” or it describes the color royal purple or red. In English it just means purple! The Latin word itself was borrowed from ancient Greek world “porphyritica” which describes the kingly purple of Tyrian purple or porphyry (a deep red igneous stone of extreme hardness which could, with much labor, be made into costly sculpture).

Purple Glossy Starling Lamprotornis purpureus (photo by tristanba)

Purple Glossy Starling Lamprotornis purpureus (photo by tristanba)

All of which is to say purpureus is still on the books as a color—a middle range purple almost half way between red and blue (although maybe leaning slightly toward red). The hue is somewhat paler than true purple, but it is still a very regal color. Naturalists have long used the word to describe purple creatures. For example here is a magnificent Lamprotornis purpureus—a purple starling, which makes its home throughout tropical central Africa.

New York's San Gennaro Festival (Photo: Joe Buglewicz)

New York’s San Gennaro Festival (Photo: Joe Buglewicz)

New York’s annual Feast of San Gennaro festival is celebrated every autumn in Manhattan’s “Little Italy” district. This year’s festival will be the 89th occurrence of this religious holiday which originated in Naples and came to New York with the great wave of Italian immigrants who migrated to the Big Apple in the 19th century (and who give the city so much of its character). In 2015 the celebration begins on Thursday, September 10th. [Mock Gasp!] Hey, that’s today!

San Gennaro's golden Bishop’s mitre made of 3,300 diamonds 164 rubies and 198 emeralds

San Gennaro’s golden Bishop’s mitre made of 3,300 diamonds 164 rubies and 198 emeralds

To celebrate San Gennaro, here is the ceremonial miter worn by the saint’s statue in the original festival which has been a major part of life in Naples since the 14th century (at least). According to folklore, the saint was originally a Roman martyr named Januarius killed during the Diocletian persecutions.  He occasionally intercedes to prevent Vesuvius from destroying Naples (or to otherwise help out the city which is under his care). Since the middle ages, various monarchs, nobles, popes, and sundry bigwigs have donated jewelry to the saint—who has accumulated a tremendous collection which is (probably incorrectly) said to rival the English crown jewels in value.

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San Genaro’s jewelry is housed in a vault in the Museum of the Treasure of St. Gennaro, itself located beneath the arcade of the Cathedral of St. Gennaro. The most famous and important pieces are the necklace (with a jeweled cross from Napoleon) and the ampule (whatever that is), but this blog is concerned with crowns–and this fantastically jeweled miter has a reasonable claim to such status since it is “decorated with 3,964 diamonds, rubies and emeralds.”

An unknown artist’s copy of an original portrait of Richard III (1520, Royal Collection)

An unknown artist’s copy of an original portrait of Richard III (1520, Royal Collection)

Richard III is indelibly remembered as the dark antihero of Shakespeare’s great play, but his real life seems to have been even more complicated and ambiguous. The last king of the House of York of the Plantagenet dynasty was killed during the Battle of Bosworth Field by means of a halberd blow which shaved off the back of his skull.  We suddenly know a great deal about Richard III because his remains were discovered a few years ago under a car park (which had once been the churchyard of the Church of Grey Friars) in suburban England!

A photographic portrait of Richard III ca. present

A photographic portrait of Richard III ca. present

The discovery of Richard III’s body in 2012 makes for fascinating reading and we learned all sorts of amazing things, but the researchers and archaeologists were left holding a surplus dead medieval king (and a rather sinister one at that). What to do?

A modern funeral crown in medieval style for the (second?) funeral of Richard III

A modern funeral crown in medieval style for the (second?) funeral of Richard III

For reasons of pomp and tradition, it was decided to reinter Richard’s remains in a fashion befitting an English King—and this required a crown (since such prop is an essential ingredient for royal funerals).  The original medieval crowns of England were lost during the age of the Protectorate (except for the little wedding crown of Richard III’s sister).  The modern crowns of the sovereigns of England are inappropriately anachronistic (not to mention super-valuable)…plus the queen hardly wants some long-dead evil king handling her cool stuff.   Yet there could hardly be a kingly reburial without some sort of crown, so history enthusiasts built their own funeral crown out of copper with gold plating.  The crown featured white enamel roses and cabochon rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and turquoise.  They based the crown on that of Margaret of York, and on descriptions of the open crown which Richard III wore during his last days.

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Funeral crowns purpose-built for the exequies of kings were not unknown during the Middle Ages.  Often these crowns were kept at churches or sacred sites near the burial place of the monarch.  Presumably this will be the future for this strange yet beautiful piece of modern medieval jewelry for the strange and disturbing king.

Artist's Interpretation of the Crown of Zvonimir

Artist’s Interpretation of the Crown of Zvonimir

The Crown of Zvonimir was another one of those ill-starred comic props which keeps popping up in increasingly goofy forms throughout history.  The original was extremely distinctive looking…um, probably.  Nobody has seen it since the early 16th century when it “mysteriously” disappeared as the Ottomans plundered Croatia (looters probably wouldn’t make off with a golden crown covered in precious jewels right?).  The crown was presented to King Demetrius Zvonimir by the Pope in 1076 (well the actual crown was presented to the actual king by a papal legate, but you know what I mean).

King Zvonimir (pictured here flashing gang signs and struggling with dyslexia)

King Zvonimir (pictured here flashing gang signs and struggling with dyslexia)

Like a duck-hunting hat, the crown of Zvonimir had distinctive ear-flaps.  Maybe Zvonimir’s ears were prone to getting cold? Heraldic convention shows the crown as surmounted with three crosses and encrusted with sapphires, and pearls.  It seems reasonable to assume that the piece was destroyed in the Middle Ages, but maybe it is has somehow survived the tumultuous centuries in some hiding spot.

Carving from a baptismal font

Carving from a baptismal font (including ear flaps!)

In the nineteen thirties and forties a fascist regime, the Ustaše regime, came to prominence in Croatia.  They seized control in 1941 and appropriated medieval symbols of Croatia’s golden(ish) age as symbols of their wicked administration.  These characters forged a new crown of Zvonimir, but their version was ludicrously unlike the original.  The modern fascist crown featured a wreath of golden clover leaves surmounted by a cross (which sounds like an appealing sight—for a devoutly Christian cow).  The new crown, along with a complimentary golden apple scepter (which really does sound delicious) were meant to be given to the new king of Croatia.  Victor Emmanuel III, the King of Italy (snicker) chose some crooked Italian Duke to fill this role, but the reborn Croatian monarchy never really got off the ground and the second crown also disappeared in the madness of World War II. Wikipedia blandly reports that “It is unknown whether this crown remains in existence.”

I couldn't find a picture of this second crown.  Did you know that Croatia has the world's most beautiful beaches?

I couldn’t find a picture of this second crown. Did you know that Croatia has the world’s most beautiful beaches?

Yeesh. Maybe Croatia should work on hyping its exquisite beaches and leave these lost crowns in history’s waste-bin!

The facade of St. Anne's Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

The facade of St. Anne’s Church in Vilnius, Lithuania

Hey! Does your heart yearn for the unrestrained majesty of Gothic architecture, yet you don’t have the time or money to travel to the heart of some expensive ancient European nation where you will be overtaxed and abundantly cared for?  Never fear! It seems like it has been a ridiculously long time since we enjoyed Gothic aesthetics, so today I am featuring Gothic brickwork buildings from around the world.

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

The Old Town Hall of Hannover, Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden,  Germany

Markt Kirche in Wiesbaden, Germany

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Historic City Hall built in a typical 14th century Brick Gothic (Wrocław, Poland)

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany

Holsten Gate, Lübeck, Germany (germanyja.com)

Hey! This is a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Hey! This is actually a model (source: warfactory.co.uk)

Now in my head Gothic buildings are made of ponderous gray stone (or possibly wood or gingerbread), but the great medieval brickwrights of Northern Europe found ways to build lavish and spectacular cathedrals, castles, and town halls out of plain red bricks.  Some of these brick edifices are equal in splendor to the most beautiful stonework.

This style seems to have been particularly prominent in Northern Germany/Southern Poland.  Ever since Gunter Grass died, my mind has been unexpectedly flitting off to his Gdansk of glowering facades and dank magic.  Imagine my delight to find that so many of the ancient buildings there (and throughout Poland) are Gothic brick.

Gdańsk University of Technology

Gdańsk University of Technology

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Keble College Chapel, Oxford, England (photo by David Iliff)

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Cathedral Hill, Frombork, Poland

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Oak Hill Cottage and Museum in Mansfield, Ohio?

Brickwork Gothic also crossed the Atlantic during the Victorian era when Gothic Revival buildings were in fashion, and the style remained current as many American Universities were being built.  That is how a building which would not look out of place in a Medieval Baltic port city ended up in the middle of Oklahoma!

 Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

Evans Halls, University of Oklahoma (1912), an example of Collegiate Gothic

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)

 

 

oak aging

The color burgundy is named after Burgundy, the famous red wine.  Burgundy, the famous red wine, is named after Burgundy a historical territory in eastern-central France.  Burgundy, the historical region of France, is named after the Burgundians, an ancient Norse people who allied with the Romans, back when the Roman Empire ruled Gaul.  The Burgundians, like the Goths, seem to have originated in Scandinavia in pre-history.  Whereas the Goths moved from Scandinavia to the Baltic island of Gottland (which means Goth Land), the original Burgundians apparently moved to the Baltic island of Bornholm (which means Burgundian Home).  From Bornholm, they become involved in the affairs of northern Europe first as raiders and mercenaries, then (as the Roman Empire blew apart) they became colonists and administrators. At least that is more-or-less what historians believe happened… During the Middle Ages Burgundians became divorced from their Scandinavian/Gothic roots and they have long been French (Burgundian nobles sometimes playing a big role in French history).

A burgundy gown in the style of late Medieval Burgundy... (from sevenstarwheel)

A burgundy gown in the style of late Medieval Burgundy… (from sevenstarwheel)

Irrespective of the origins of the name, the color burgundy is a gorgeous deep red hue entirely fitting for an ancient race of cutthroat warriors.  Burgundy is darker than cordovan and a truer red than oxblood or maroon.   It is the magnificent dark red of undiluted alizarin crimson.  Because it is such a vivid color, it tends to stand for sensuality, power, and violence.

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Despite this wildness and darkness (or maybe because of it), burgundy is a very popular color in fashion and beauty.  It was particularly en vogue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it was my then-girlfriend’s favorite color for lipstick and clothes.  I distinctly remember seeing it everywhere back then.   Today, the radiant sun of fashion does not shine quite so directly on burgundy, but it is still a popular color in sports, automobiles, and homegoods.   According to the internet, burgundy remains a favorite color for lipstick in the Goth subculture (i.e. among teenagers and young adults who enjoy melodramatic and fetishistic costumes). So burgundy has made a full circle from the Goths of Roman times to the Goths of today.

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