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There was a huge thunderstorm in New York City this afternoon. Enormous black thunderheads loomed up above the skyscrapers and great peals of thunder echoed down the concrete canyons of Wall Street. Then a wall of water fell out of the sky. It was no easy matter getting up to Alphabet City to meet my friend after work, however when we stepped out of the restaurant, suddenly the clouds lifted for a second and the whole world glowed with an unholy and alien mauve. That is when I noticed a rainbow leading to this weirdly garish (and rather lovely) building across the street. Sadly my phone is not very good and you can barely see the rainbow–but it was there…pointing to the pot of gold that is somewhere here in New York. Or maybe it is a pride rainbow. At any rate it was splendid and I wish I had managed to take a better picture.

rainbow3

It’s Friday night right before Pride weekend—just after a landmark Supreme Court ruling making equal marriage rights into national law throughout the United States.  I just realized I am painting a rainbow mantis shrimp (as a part of one of my weird paintings).  Tomorrow I am going to a children’s birthday party to paint faces.  It occurs to me that maybe I should write about rainbows—the quintessential manifestation of color, joie de vivre, and liberation (political, sexual, spiritual, and otherwise).

Landscape with Rainbow (Joseph Anton Koch, 1824, oil on canvas)

Landscape with Rainbow (Joseph Anton Koch, 1824, oil on canvas)

Of course rainbows are really a meteorological/optic phenomenon which can be seen whenever there are water drops suspended in the atmosphere with sunlight shining through (from behind the observer) at a particular angle. The light is refracted into a prismatic range of visible wavelengths.  This rote description however does scarce justice to the great beauty of the effect which has a transcendent glowing loveliness.

Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow

Iris, Goddess of the Rainbow

Thanks to this otherworldly beauty, the rainbow has many mythological associations in different pantheons: divine messengers use it as a bridge in Greek and Norse mythology, while the rainbow serpent rides it throughout the multiverse in aboriginal myth!  In the Judeo-Christian Bible, the rainbow represents God’s covenant not to destroy all life ever again…by means of flood (a binding promise which always struck me as dangerously undermined by the appended clause).   The leprechauns’ gold is hidden at the end of the rainbow—which is a place which can never be reached since the colors are an effect of light and not a real object (which makes it a perfect hiding place for the fantasy gold of mythical beings).

US World War I Victory Medal

US World War I Victory Medal

Rainbows have a long history as political symbols as well. The rainbow was the logo of the Cooperative movement during the German Peasant’s War of the 16th century (a profoundly unhappy social lesson which I will write about in detail as soon as I get some of that leprechaun gold). It has been used as a general symbol of peace after the World Wars (and even longer in Italy) and of racial cooperation in the sixties and, more especially, in post-Apartheid South Africa.  Since the seventies, the rainbow has been the symbol of gay pride and the LGBT social movement—progressive trends which have made astounding transfigurative leaps within my own lifetime. The original pride flag was designed by San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker in 1978 for the first Pride parade (which took place of June 25th of that year).

The original 8-color Pride Flag

The original 8-color Pride Flag

Baker’s original eight stripe LGBT rainbow has been gradually pared down to six colors by marketers in their obsessive bid to make things more simple and iconic (a broader sales philosophy which seems to me to strip the beauty and meaning from many aspects of the world).  Hopefully the rainbow—symbolic or real–won’t be further compromised by such dodgy principles!  In the meantime have a delightful midsummer weekend and celebrate.  Here in New York, it is supposed to rain and be beautiful at the same time, so perhaps we will get a real rainbow to compare with all of the flags and ornaments.

Today's Pride Flag

Today’s Pride Flag

Batik Iris

Batik Iris

Irises are flowers in the genus Iris.  They are named after the Greek goddess Iris [ed. So far this seems kind of circular] who traveled on rainbows which were also known as irises.  Thus the familiar beautiful garden flowers are known by the Greek word for rainbow because they were available in a whole rainbow of colors.

Other People's Beautiful German Irises

Other People’s Beautiful German Irises

This is all deeply relevant because four years ago I bought a beautiful iris and planted it in my garden. It started as a little green sprout and then, through the subsequent years grew into a magnificent thicket of sword shaped bright waxy leaves—but it never bloomed.  Time worked its indignant wiles on my memory and I forgot what exactly what variety I had bought.

"Freedom Song" Iris

“Freedom Song” Iris

This year, finally, a bud sprouted on the iris!  I have been so excited to find out the color of the mytery iris.  I scoured the internet trying to figure out what I had bought (the irises pictured above “Batik” and were some of my guesses).  There was even a dark moment when I thought about how quixotic my aesthetics can be and I feared I had bought a huge brown hypnotic werewolf iris!

"Spiced Tiger" looks pretty much like a werewolf to me

“Spiced Tiger” looks pretty much like a werewolf to me

But it turns out that the me of four years ago, made at least one good choice: here is the beautiful mystery iris as it appears now in my garden (along with my sphinx sculpture):

My Iris!  The picture doesn't do it justice at all.  It is so lovely...

My Iris! The picture doesn’t do it justice at all. It is so lovely…

It is darkest violet edging into black with furry deep purple beards!  I am pretty sure it is called “Night Ruler” which sounds like an evil cleric or a death knight!  Yes!  Sometimes my past choices come back to haunt me, but for once that guy did something really amazing and nice!  I love this iris!  Here is another picture of it which I drew.

Iris and Greek Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil on paper)

Iris and Greek Sphinx (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil on paper)

“Night Ruler” has awakened my heart to a lust for irises—but any actions I take will require another four years to yield results and by then I will no doubt be living on a tropical beach in Greenland or fighting our robot overlords…or worse I will have again forgotten what I picked out and I will be forced to live beholden to the unfathomable whims of who I used to be.

"Night Ruler" photographed by a professional

“Night Ruler” photographed by a professional

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr by See Reeves

Only 15 species of Eucalyptus trees occur naturally outside of Australia and of these 15 only Eucalyptus deglupta made it to the northern hemisphere without human help.  Eucalyptus deglupta is native to the lowland rainforests of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The tree grows rapidly to 75 meters in height (about 250 feet) which makes it one of the world’s giants.  Sometimes it becomes so large that it grows 3-4 meter tall buttresses to help it support itself.  Because of its rapid growth, large size, and medium-strength, slightly lustrous wood, these eucalyptus trees are grown commercially in huge monoculture plantations for pulping into paper.

 

Rainbow Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta) photo from Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/amelia525/303048913/) by *amelia*

The most remarkable aspect of this huge useful tree is its remarkable bark color.  The tree sheds long strips of bark throughout the year which exposes greenish yellow inner bark.  The exposed stripes of green then change color to orange, purple, red, maroon, and dark green.  Since the tree is constantly shedding narrow strips of bark its trunk becomes dazzling vertically striped rainbow of lovely colors.  In wet tropical gardens around the world the Eucalyptus deglupta is grown as an ornamental highlight both because of its beautiful color and impressive size.

Close-up of Eucalyptus deglupta

I am uncertain as to whether I should include demons and fallen angels in my “Deities of the Underworld” topic category.  They certainly seem to be immortal chthonic gods (or at least demigods) who are based in a land of torment and perdition beneath the ground, but, ever since the revelation at Sinai, monotheists get very touchy when one starts bandying about the G-word.  Irrespective, I think I will brave the scorn of the Abrahamic peoples and include this post in that thread.

Such a question is relevant because today, tomorrow, and Friday, I will feature three masterpieces of Gothic painting which portray demons!  Get out your asbestos gloves and put aside your squeamishness concerning scales, claws, talons, and horns because the great gothic painters lived in the medieval world where demons were taken very seriously

Bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390, tempera on panel)

This first work is by Florentine artist Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni (1369 – 1415). Almost nothing is known of Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, but it is believed he was originally a manuscript illuminator who made the jump to panel painter.  Whatever his background was, he has certainly given us a vivid demon painting. This is the bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints painted around 1390.  It depicts the temptation of Saint Anthony and what a temptation!  A bevy of rainbow colored demons, each wielding a unique implement of torture, torment the prostrate saint in order to convince him to renounce his faith.  Not for Cenni di Francesco the nubile lovelies who characteristically tempt the ascetic Anthony—this Saint is tempted by putting an end his pain!  On a deeper level the fiends may represent the privations and hardships of Anthony’s anchoretic life in Egypt’s eastern desert. These animal hybrid demons have particularly animated features and distinct personalities.  I wonder if Maurice Sendak happened across this image because his wild things bear a passing resemblance to Anthony’s tormentors.

Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints (Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, ca. 1390, Tempera on panel)

This is a tiny portion of a magnificent edifice of individual paintings. Cenni di Francesco’s works all come together in a towering gothic structure dedicated to the glory of the saints and their faith. The work is so large and all-encompassing that the torments of a few demons seem almost like a minor matter–which is perhaps part of the artwork’s meaning.  The entire alterpiece is today located at the Getty Museum, so if you are around Los Angeles, you can drop in and look at the actual artwork.

Tomorrow…fallen angels….

The Rainbow Serpent (artwork by Kinjaii)

The Australian Aboriginal people believe there is a world or era which exists beyond this world, the Dreamtime.  In that timeless transcendent realm, totemic forces and mighty spirit beings perpetually shape the earth.  One of the most important of these spirits was the great rainbow serpent, an immense magical snake which lives simultaneously in the watercourses, deep billabongs, and underground springs of Australia, in the rain, and, of course, in the eternal Dreamtime. 

According to myth, the rainbow serpent created the rivers and mountains of Australia in the course of his or her travels.   Serpent stories vary from tribe to tribe.  Different groups even call the spirit serpent by various names, but the concept is pan-Australian.  Aboriginal tribes which live in the monsoon regions of Australia tell stories about the serpent’s interaction with the sun and the wind to bring the seasonal rains.  Tribes from the deep desert tell about its underground travels through the underworld between the permanent waterholes.

Painting by Susanne Iles

The serpent can appear in the sky as a rainbow, however its true nature is as fickle as ever-changing water.  To some people, the serpent brings healing, knowledge, and fertility while he gulps down others, drowns them, or visits sickness upon them. The voice of the rainbow serpent is the sound of a didgeridoo.  George Chaloupka, an expert on folklore and rock art describes the Rainbow Serpent as follows:

“The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness in propoagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turn into stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow him with magical powers, or leave ‘little rainbows’, their progeny, within his body which will make him ail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the main character in the region’s major rituals.”

The first humans whose titanic existence marked the dreamtime, who brought flora to the world were said to have been swallowed up by the rainbow serpent. Although timeless and nigh omnipotent, the rainbow serpent did come from somewhere. Aborigines believe that it was an offspring of the vast cosmological serpent, visible as the dark streak in the Milky Way.

Good grief! It does look like a serpent...

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