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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)

 

 

Mikimoto Pearl Crown

In the classical Roman world, crowns did not represent monarchy in the same way they later came to during the Middle Ages.  Instead crown and wreathes were granted as an award to individuals who had distinguished themselves–much like a trophy or a medal.  Strangely, this ancient tradition continues today in the world of beauty pageants.  Contests like the Miss America contest, the Miss Universe pageant, and numerous other beauty pageants invariably present a crown to the victor (although the Roman custom has been sadly watered down and winners don’t keep their crown but give it to their successor).

Ex-General Alfred Gruenther presents the pageant crown to Jean Marie Lee of Alaska, the 1957 U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen.

The crowns for the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss World pageant are gaudy affairs made of crystal and synthetic gemstones, however Mikimoto the world’s great manufacturer of cultured pearls also makes pageant crowns and promotional crowns out of their peerless cultured pearls, and some of these headdresses are strangely lovely and striking.

Pearls are formed when the internal mantle tissues of certain shelled mollusks are injured by a predator attack, a parasite incursion, or some other event. In response, the mollusk secretes nacre into the hollow space formed around the injury. The nacre is composed of calcium carbonate and a fibrous protein known as conchiolin.  In the past pearls were very expensive and rare (so much so that the real crown of the Netherlands is made with fake pearls manufactured of fishskin and paste).  However in the beginning of the twentieth century Japanese entrepreneurs mastered a technique for culturing perfect pearls.  The Mikimoto company has been a pearl culturing company and a fine jeweler ever since.

The Cherry Blossom Festival Crown

For the last century, Mikimoto has created many beautiful crowns in order to show off its wares. In 1957, Mikimoto created the elaborate Cherry Blossom crown for the U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen of the National Cherry Blossom Festival held in Washington DC, which has celebrated Japanese-American friendship since 1912 (except for a few periods, when the festival was canceled for sundry reasons). Mikimoto also made two demonstration crowns which do not have any purpose other than to show off their art.   The crown pictured at the top of this post was crafted by Mikimoto in 1978 to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the discovery of their method of culturing pearls.  Another spectacular demonstration crown was made by Mikimo in 1979 based on Byzantine models and designs.

Mikimoto Pearl Crown II

In 2002 Mikimoto constructed the so-called “Phoenix crown” for the Miss Universe pageant out of 500 diamonds and 120 large South Sea and Akoya pearls.  The crown was presented to pageant winners between 2002 and 2007 when it was sold to a private owner.  Although I object to Miss Universe for false advertising (only denizens of Earth are represented), the large pearls of the pageant crown are certainly very striking.

The Phoenix Tiara used to crown Miss Universe between 2002 and 2007

Here the crown is worn by Riyo Mori, the 2007 Miss Universe pageant winner

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