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Cave Flounder.jpg

Regular visitors know that my alter-ego/spirit animal is the flounder (or, at any rate, the flatfish is definitely the leitmotif of this period of my ecology/history themed art).  During lunchbreak or on the train I work on little “lesser” flounder drawings.  In the near future I plan to put them all on a little internet store…along with some of the prints of the intricate flounder I have been drawing.  Also there will be an interactive online flounder…it will all be the glorious artistic unveiling I have been hinting at for a while.  You are going to love it!…erm…hopefully. In the mean time though, here are three of the most recent small flounder drawings I do during my busy Midtown days to keep from going crazy.  The one at the top is some sort or oracle emerging from the underworld depths of the flounder itself.  I don’t know what secrets this augur has…or even what gender they are, but they have brought unfathomable mysteries to light from the cave depths. A vile chef-beast lurks to the right roaring of appetites which can never be sated, while, at left a young mother nurses an infant: the next generation arises to take a place within the great weal, yet always there is appetite.

Magic Lamp Flounder.jpg

Speaking of which, this second flounder is meant to evoke the ifrits which always pop out of of ancient middle eastern oil lamps. A mysterious world of gauzy spirits, mystery beasts, and apparitions swirl around the lit lamp, but whether any of these blue spirits offer helpful advice or magical munificence is unclear.

Cell Flounder.jpg

Finally, I made a flounder which represents the bloodstream (my very first readers will recall that I had a childhood epiphany about the nature of living things based on blood).  The cells stream forth to build the organism and carry out needed maintenance, but strange viruses swirl within the plasma.  most ominously a parasitic tapeworm stares in hunger at the feast of little lives.  It is unclear whether the aristocratic woman is a parasite or whether she is the host.  This is a whole little ecosystem with the long-suffering flounder in the middle.

I will add all of these flounder to my Instagram feed (which you should follow), but you can see them here first, and read the perplexing explanations I have offered.

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Floral bracelets with mix of sapphires, rubies and turquoise (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

I was a bit hard on China in yesterday’s post about toxic sludge left over from refining rare earth elements (I was actually angry at myself for not being a natural businessman, not at the Chinese for ruining the Earth with industrial poisons). Today, therefore, let’s cleanse our palettes by looking at some exquisite treasures which were found in a medieval Chinese tomb! The grave was discovered by construction workers in Nanjing in 2008, but is just now being showcased to the world. It belonged to “Lady Mei” a noblewoman who died in 1474—just 18 years before Columbus discovered the new world. Lady Mei was 45 when she died. Her epitaph reveals that she was a concubine who was married off to the Duke of Yunnan when she was an “unwashed and unkempt” maiden of 15. Lady Mei outshone the Duke’s two senior wives by bearing a son, but her biography also indicates she had a lively mind and no small share of strategic and political genius. Reading between the lines, it seems like she ran the Duke’s vast household (and possibly Yunnan) for twenty years (during the strife and court turmoil of the feuding Zhengtong and Jingtai Emperors and the mad incompetence of the Chenghua Emperor no less).

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

The excavated tomb of Lady Wei (late 15th century AD)

You can read what is known about Lady Mei’s fascinating life here, but for today’s purposes let’s look at some of the otherworldly jewelry found in the tomb.

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Gold hairpiece with a mix of sapphires and rubies

Ming dynasty art is my favorite Chinese art! The artists of the Song dynasty were more inventive (and perhaps had greater raw talent). The artists of the Ching dynasty had a more eye-popping palette and crafted designs with more ornate flourishes. The artists of the Tang dynasty were more cosmopolitan and outward looking. The artists of today certainly know how to make ugly wretched junk which celebrates the dark magic of marketing. But the artists and artisans of the Ming era were unsurpassed at finding perfect proportions and color combinations. They blended the diverse regional and international elements from around all of China into a perfect lavish synthesis of styles which is instantly and indelibly Chinese.

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (

A fragrance box with gold chain from the tomb of Lady Mei (“lotus petal” decorations and Sanskrit in gold with sapphires, rubies, and one turquoise. (Courtesy of Chinese Cultural Relics)

Look at how Central Asian decorative motifs mix with Southern Asian religious designs all within a rubric of ancient patterns from the Yangzi heartland! The bold yellow of the jewels is perfectly matched by the equally rich colors of carved rubies, sapphires, cats’ eyes, and turquoises.

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei's Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Gold flame hairpin from Lady Wei’s Tomb (gold with rubies and sapphires)

Each of the pieces of jewelry looks like something the queen of heaven could be wearing in a Chinese myth. These pieces are hairpins, bracelets, and a perfume box, but they have the splendor and unrivaled workmanship of crowns. Indeed, Lady Mei might as well have been a sovereign. Contemporary Yunnan has approximately the same population as contemporary Spain. The Yunnan of Lady Mei’s day was likewise probably about the same size as Spain just before it unified and took over the Americas.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

Two gold hairpins with branches and tendril patterns.

It is astonishing that these treasures have been lying in the earth, waiting for some developer to build a supermarket or condominium. Lady Wei’s opulent grave goods are exquisite—the undying glory of Ming craftsmanship still dazzles like nothing else.

Happy 407th birthday to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn!  The master’s peerless paintings and etchings show a unique understanding and empathy for the human condition.  Rembrandt painted faces more expressively than any other artist–because of this strength, his works attain deep emotional complexity.   To illustrate this, and to celebrate his birth, here is a masterpiece by Rembrandt which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid.  The painting is magnificent!  A pensive noblewoman (modeled by Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia) in resplendent jewels and silks takes a nautilus cup from a little page.  Behind her stands a strange gray figure, half-visible in the gloom—an apparition? a servant? The painter himself?  It is unclear.  The painting itself is a mystery which has been discussed an argued about for centuries.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_014a

Rembrandt painted the work in 1634 (which we can see from his prominent signature and his inimitable style), but, uncharacteristically we do not know the title.  The painting is either “Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes” or “Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup.”  If the first title is correct, then the nautilus cup which is dramatic focus of the painting contains the ashes of Queen Artemisia’s husband/brother, Mausolus, satrap of Persia.  Mausolus’ immense tomb (constructed by Artemisia) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and gave us the word “mausoleum”.  Yet the great tomb was empty:  Artemisia had Mausolus’ ashes mixed into wine which she drank day after day until she had completely consumed his remains (the Greeks were fascinated by the fact that Artemisia was simultaneously the sister and wife and devourer of Mausolus).

However, if the second title is correct, then the seashell cup contains deadly poison.  Sophonisba was the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Gisco.  Upon his defeat, she took poison so as not to endure the humiliation of being part of a Roman triumph.   Nautilus shells allegedly had the magical power to negate poison (safety tip: this is not true at all).  That Sophonisba would commit suicide with such a cup indicates the true moral of the painting: the real poison is defeat and slavery.  Poison and a proud death are her antidotes.

Rembrandt_-_Artemis_-_Detail_Nautilus_cup

So which answer is right?  Or are they both wrong?  Saskia’s strange diffident anxiety could be fitting for either story, yet her manner and dress are not those of a grieving Persian sister-queen.   I favor the interpretation of the painting as that of the stoic Sophonisba.  These are her last moments and the gray figure is as much an inhabitant of the underworld as a flesh-and-blood attendant.  The strange whimsical garb is the fantasy raiment of vanished Carthage. But I could well be wrong. What do you think?

Phoenix crown worn by Emperor Wanli’ s Empress Xiaoduan, Wanli period (1573-1620), Ming Dynasty.

In Dynastic China the most important ceremonial objects around which the Emperor’s power was focused was not a crown but rather the imperial seals.  However that does not mean that ornate jeweled crowns were not a part of court life. Phoenix crowns were worn by the empress and other exalted noblewomen on ceremonial occasions.  These headdresses were adorned with intricate sculptures of dragons, phoenixes, and pheasants made from precious materials.  The crowns were highly ornamental and were literally encrusted with gold, turquoise, kingfisher feathers, pearls, and gemstones.

The 6-dragon-3-phoenix crown of a Ming dynasty Empress (3 of the dragons are at the back of the crown)

First crafted in the Tang Dynasty, phoenix crowns changed many times in accordance with Chinese fashion but they found their greatest era of popularity in the Ming dynasty when the wearer’s status was indicated by the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants on her crown.  The empress was allowed to wear a crown with 12 dragons and 9 phoenixes, but a less-favored concubine or minor princess might be forced to endure a mere 7 pheasants.

Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) the only de facto ruling Empress of China, shown wearing a Phoenix Crown in the Tang Era

A Phoenix Crown adorning a Song Dynasty Empress (from a Song portrait painting)

Phoenix Crown by 张雅涵

Phoenix crowns—or similarly elaborate jeweled crowns are also associated with weddings and the juxtaposition of the bride’s red robes (red is the super magic happy lucky color of China) against the bright blue of the turquoise and kingfisher feathers makes for a bold visual presentation.

Traditional Chinese Wedding Garb

Traditional Chinese Wedding

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