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reliquary-of-saint-oswald

Gosh, we have looked at a lot of crowns, haven’t we?  You would think that, after all of these posts, we would have started to run out of royal headwear, but we haven’t even remotely begun to get to the back of history’s vast royal treasury.  Nothing seems to interest humans quite so much as status, and nothing says status like a gold hat which proclaims “I am better than than those around me”.  Today’s crown however is not meant for a human head: it is a votive crown which is devoted to the idea that there are  aspects of status which fundamentally transcend even our sad status-driven lives.  This idea is maybe at the heart of religion–which is an even more naked manifestation of the human need for hierarchical status and tribal belonging than politics and kingship (although they are all knit together in a disturbing way).

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Enough philosophizing…above is the crown of of Saint Oswald made of gold, silver, pearls, shell, and gemstones.  It seems to date from the late 12th century AD but may be of earlier construction.  Elements of the crown, such as the Roman cameo and the intaglios are definitely ancient pieces which have been repurposed into the saint’s crown (the whole piece may have been donated by a king or prince as a devotional act, but the history is unclear).  The crown is kept at Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany on top of a reliquary statue of Saint Oswald made of gilded wood with disturbing niello eyes.

Oswald is a good illustration of the fungible nature of political and religious power.  He was a 7th century Saxon king who converted to Christianity and annealed the thrones of Bernicia and Deira together into the powerful Kingdom of Northumbria which was a high point in England’s dark age history (this business of putting kingdoms together out of disparate preexisting elements is reflected somewhat in the bricolage nature of  this saint’s crown from 500 years later).  Oswald was a warlord who died in battle, yet he was also a uniter, a spiritual leader, and a saintly king (at least in Bede’s estimation).  He became the focus of a particular cult later in the Middle Ages and there are at least 4 skulls attributed to him in continental Europe alone.

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Thebaid (Fra Angelico, 1410, Tempera on Panel)

Thebaid (Fra Angelico, 1410, Tempera on Panel)

Are you ready for a deeply strange and problematic painting of tremendous beauty?  This is “The Thebaid” a masterpiece from Florence in the very early 13th century (it was probably completed in 1410 AD).   For centuries, art historians have argued over who painted this epic monastic landscape.  For a long time it was believed the painting was by the enigmatic Jacopo Starnina.  Then, for many years, art experts thought the painting was by Lorenzo Monaco, a gothic painter who moved to Florence from Sienna and excelled at painting brilliantly colored saints (although he eschewed the great artistic innovations of his time—such as perspective and painting from life).  Finally, historical consensus has settled on none other than the matchless Fra Angelico as the painter–which seems fitting since this work is so thoroughly a celebration of monastic life (Fra Angelico was a friar…although so was Lorenzo Monaco).  Fra Angelico is famous for bridging the styles of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.  With its angular mountains, stylized churches, and gilded sailing ships, “The Thebaid” is appropriately gothic and old fashioned to be one of his early works.  Yet it also has the first flowering of the flowing rhythm and deliquescent grace which have made Fra Angelico such a famous name in art.

Detail

Detail

Whoever painted it, the painting is a mythological depiction of the Egyptian desert in the Fifth Century AD—a time and place synonymous with hermits and monasticism.  The story goes that Saint Horus, an early Christian ascetic, wandered into the desert outside of Thebes to live as a hermit.  Although initially illiterate, Horus learned the Holy scriptures on his own (or through divine intervention).  So many devout men were inspired by his life of solitude, renunciation, and piety that they too moved into the empty desert.  Thus a thriving community of monastics gathered around the famous anchorite.  The one became many and the once barren desert became a verdant model for monasticism.

Detail

Detail

The picture is certainly a celebration of the cloistered life which a Florentine monk would have known.  The architecture, dress, and agricultural equipment is of the same era as the painter.  Yet the painting also has a timelessness befitting the subject. Within the narrative flow of a community of monks assembling, one can discern beautiful humanizing details such as the infirm elderly monk being carried on a dais by his brothers or the monk in the center preaching to a black dog.  Indeed animals abound within this work and one of the monks seems to be riding a deer while another rides a chariot pulled by lions.  There is a lot going on in this magic gathering of holy men communing with nature!

 

austrianorn-wmaster

This post is the third installment of a series concerning the astonishing 1600 year backstory of Santa Claus (you should start here with part 1, if you want things in chronological order).  At the conclusion of yesterday’s post, Saint Nicholas was a beloved saint from Greek-speaking Anatolia who was the focus of miracle stories about fighting demons, helping the poor, and raising the dead.  Many lesser-known saints have similar stories (although few miracles are as impressive as the story of Saint Nicholas resurrecting the murdered boys).  So how did Saint Nicholas transition from an ascetic Mediterranean wonder-worker to de-facto god of the winter solstice?

Pagan-Yule-spirit

The answer involves the multi-century conversion of northern and central Europe to Christianity.  In order to facilitate the widespread conversion of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes into the Christian fold, churchmen drew on preexisting traditions and customs.  Many pagan deities thus became conflated with traditional saints (a cultural syncretism not dissimilar from what we wrote about in this post about Afro-Caribbean voodoo loa) and many pagan customs worked their way into Christianity.   Saint Nicholas was a stern bearded figure whose feast day occurred near Yule (winter solstice).  Additionally he had a history of giving gifts, punching people, and performing strange resurrection miracles.  Because of these traits Saint Nicholas became identified with Wotan (or Odin), the otherworldly wandering king of Germanic gods.

Wotan

Wotan

At Yuletime, Wotan would hunt through the sky on his flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir.   Many of Wotan’s old names and characteristics are those of a wizard-like winter king.  He had a long white beard and his epithet “Jólnir” meant “Yuletime god”.  He held suzerainty over tribe of magical gnomes/dwarves who acted as his smiths and crafted wonderful weapon for him.  If a youth was worthy, Wotan would bring him a shiny knife or axe (which was slipped into a shoe or under the bed).  If a youth was unworthy, then the hapless dullard was in for a round of physical punishment or was simply dragged away by trolls and demons.   Wotan knew who was worthy and who was not because he had two black ravens “Thought” and “Memory” who traveled through the world taking note of mortal proclivities.  Speaking of animal helpers, at Yuletime it was characteristic to leave apples and carrots for Sleipnir (the flying horse) just in case Wotan decided to visit.

Santa?

Santa?

Stepping into these big northern shoes was a heady transition for an orthodox Mediterranean saint.  Additionally, northern Europe was not culturally homogenous.  Saint Nicholas took on different names and characteristics in different parts of Europe.  In Germany he was known variously Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Boozenickel, Hans Trapp, or Pelznickel. Sometimes he was served by bestial underlings like Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus.  In other regions he worked alone or opposed these winter demons.  In the north Sant Nick’s dwarvish smiths morphed into a tribe of elves but in Switzerland they morphed into Moors.  Wotan’s ravens turned into the famous naughty/nice list.

Nikolaus & Krampus

Nikolaus & Krampus

Later, in Holland, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas, a magical gift-giving bishop who traveled by means of flying sled—and who kept a captured Surinamese servant to help out (you can read about the eyebrow-raising modern interpretations of Zwarte Piet in this article by my friend Jessica).  For some reason Sinterklaas was thought to live in Spain during his off-season. England (with its mix of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and French culture) had its own traditions of Father Christmas—a nature god clothed in green.  Children from France waited for Père Noël to bring them gifts on his magic donkey (and don’t even ask about Ded Moroz, the Slavic Frost King who travels around Russia with Snegurochka).

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

Sinterklaas & Associates (A drawing from a picture book by Rie Cramer)

In other words Saint Nicholas became more interesting and diverse as he was adopted by different folklore traditions.  However he also became confusing and strange to the point of unrecognizability.  Yet by the 18th and 19th centuries, new trends of globalization and industrialization were sweeping Europe—and the globe.  Santa was ready to put on his red suit and drive his reindeer to his toy factory.  You can read up to where his story meets the present (the temporal present!) in tomorrow’s post.

What is even going on here?

What is even going on here?

Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas, by Alexander Boguslawski, Professor of Russian Studies, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. Professor Boguslawski's dissertation (1982), "The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia," provided the background for the painting

Life and Miracles of Saint Nicholas (Alexander Boguslawski, 1982, “The Vitae of St. Nicholas and His Hagiographical Icons in Russia,” provided the background for the painting)

Yesterday’s post concerning Saint Nicholas ended on a somber note as the saint, well…he died and was buried in a spooky sarcophagus within a basilica in Asia Minor.  Ordinarily such an ending represents a comprehensive conclusion to a biography. Yet in the centuries that followed the death of Nicholas, stories began to spread that he was up and about, busily performing miracles.  The miraculous tales of Saint Nicholas are from the Byzantine era and they possess that era’s powerful (and unnerving) combination of classical Roman mythography and medieval hagiography.  Some of these tales were post-dated to involve the living Nicholas—like the stories where he healed a woman’s withered hand when he was a child, fought with pirates as a young man (yeah!), or cast a group of demons out of a funereal cypress tree.  However other miracles performed by Saint Nicholas seem to take place in a timeless setting where the Saint acquired the ability to teleport, control the weather, and possessed full powers over human affairs, including life and death.

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s)

Saint Nicholas so often ended up fighting pirates, storms, and the capricious ocean that some scholars think that his hagiographers might have borrowed their stories from Neptune myths. In one story he teleported a Greek sailor out of the middle of a storm raging in the Black Sea.  In a different tale he rescued a mariner by means of a helpful whale.  Sometimes he manumitted slaves by whisking them across oceans away from the hands of cruel emirs.  Indeed, even today Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors.  Yet an even more important aspect of his nature was coming to the fore: in more and more stories he gave away gifts to those in need (frequently under cover of anonymity) or looked after children in peril.

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

Patron Saint of Sailors, Travelers, and Seafarers

The two myths which have the most impact on his future career—as a gift-giver and benefactor to children are intensely harrowing and awful. They both have the surreal panic of dark fairytales or vivid nightmares (or Byzantine history!).  So if you are a child (in which case, what are you doing here?) or easily impressionable you might want to relax with some fluffy creatures and skip the rest of this post.

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

St. Nicholas and the Three Gold Balls, From the predella of the Quaratesi triptych from San Niccolo (Gentile da Fabriano, AD 1425, tempera on panel)

Three girls of an impoverished noble family were left orphaned when their father died.  Since the father expired in the middle of uncertain business affairs, they were left destitute and without dowries.  The only way for the distraught maidens to make ends meet was to find recourse in the oldest profession.  As they wept and prepared to enter a life of prostitution, a glowing hand appeared in the window and cast three balls of gold into the house.  It was Saint Nicholas giving away princely sums of gold in order to prevent the little girls from being turned out.

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca.  1430s, tempera)

St. Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths (Bicci di Lorenzo, ca. 1430s, tempera)

The most intense miracle performed by Saint Nicholas has curious parallels with the story of the three girls.  Three wealthy little boys were traveling through the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor.  They came to an inn with a treacherous and avaricious owner.  In the middle of the night the innkeeper stabbed the children to death and stole their money and clothes.  Then he butchered the bodies and put the severed pieces in salt so he could sell the children as hams (thus simultaneously turning a profit and disposing of the corpses).  For several nights it seemed he had gotten away with his horrifying act, but then with a crack of thunder, Saint Nicholas appeared in the inn.  The Saint summarily dispensed with the innkeeper who was heard from no more.  Hastening to the curing house, Nicholas opened up the salt casks and tenderly reassembled the pickled pieces of the unlucky boys into whole bodies.  Lifting his arms he summoned divine power to reanimate the murdered children and send them on their way (unscathed, I guess, although one would imagine that being dismembered and brined would leave some post-traumatic stress).

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

Patron Saint of travelers and Seafarers

These intense miracle-stories traveled through the near east and beyond. Nicholas became one of the most famous saints—one of the very special dead who serve as divine intermediaries to the numinous in medieval Christianity (and up to this very day in Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity).  As proselytizing clerics made their way into pagan Germany, Scandinavia, and Slavic lands, they spread tales of the wonder-working bishop who gave gifts and healed children.  After hundreds of years of performing miracles in the middle east it would not seem like things could get stranger for Saint Nicholas, but in the German forests and Alpine mountains he was due to transform again.  You can read all about it in tomorrow’s post!

nicholas

In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead.  Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger.  This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires).  However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.

In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire.  His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan.  Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian.  Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas

In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea.  The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity.  Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence.  Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans.  The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Nikolaos Striking Arius

Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument.  Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings.  After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos.  Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile.  Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

A Roman Coin depicting the Temple of Artemis at Myra

Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there.  Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world.  Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.

The Death of Nikolaos

The Death of Nikolaos

He died as a revered figure in 343 AD.  Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:

Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.

Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman.  But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning.  After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint.  His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world.  Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.

The Tomb of Nikolaos

The Tomb of Nikolaos

Today we head back to Gotland for another ancient knotlike symbol.  The Saint John’s arms is a square with loops at each edge.  The shape is actually not a knot but an unknot: if you pulled at it you would discover that it is a torus which has been twisted.

Fornsalen Museum, Visby ( Gotland ). Picture stone with Saint John’s Arms Knot (photo by Wolfgang Sauber)

The symbol appears carved on a 1500 year old image stone from Hablingbo, on the island of Gotland (a Swedish Island in the Baltic Sea).  Ever since then it has appeared throughout the Scandinavian/Baltic world to demark sights of interest.  Although it is especially common in Finland (where it gained a reputation for warding off evil), the Saint John’s arms can be found blazoned upon cultural attractions throughout Belarus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, and Sweden.

Rana museum, department of Natural history in Mo i Rana (Nordland, Norway)

From its obscure Scandinavian roots, the Saint John’s arms vaulted into international fame during the 80s.  Originally Apple computer utilized the “open apple” and “closed apple” as its command keys (I even remember these from my old Apple IIe and my halcyon days of adventuring in the realms of Ultima).  In 1984, when the Macintosh personal computer was introduced, Steve Jobs decided that using the apple for shortcut commands was denigrating the brand.  According to Apple insider Andy Hertzfeld, when Jobs saw how many apple commands were in an early version of MacDraw he peremptorily told the design team, “There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!”  The bitmap artist, Susan Kare, flipped through her dictionary of international symbols until she found one that easily translated into 16 bit-resolution.  It was the Saint John’s arms symbol—which the symbol dictionary said indicated camping grounds in Sweden.

So today the Saint John’s arms, a mysterious Viking symbol carved on a weird rock on a haunted island, is in use everywhere that Apple computers are.

Saint Patrick Expelling the Snakes

Just kidding—aside from zoos and the pet trade, Ireland actually famously has no snakes.  It is one the few snake-free large islands on Earth joined only by New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica (well—everywhere far enough north or south is snake-free: the reptiles don’t really thrive in places where there is permafrost or truly cold winters).  Legend has it that it was Saint Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland.  Standing on a great hill he lifted up his crosier and focused divine energy upon the unlucky reptiles which then writhed en masse into the sea and never returned to the emerald island.

"Ssseriously, why are you doing thisss?"

It has always been a bit unclear to me why Saint Patrick would do such a thing. Ecoystems which undergo such catastrophic changes tend to go haywire with great alacrity!  Fortunately the story is entirely a myth.  If snakes ever lived in Ireland (and it doesn’t seem like they did), they were long gone by the time the first Christians showed up.  The real reason is even more interesting than the dramatic Moses-like power of Saint Patrick, but as with most actual answers it is also more complex.

Evidence suggests that snakes evolved 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous.  At the time Ireland was, um, underwater at the bottom of a warm chalky sea.  Early snakes slithered their way across landbridges, rafted to islands on washed away logs, and swam (like the sea snakes) from island to island but, during the Mesozoic, there was no Ireland for them to go to.

Europe in the Ice Age (the pale white area was under a huge sheet of ice)

When the Mesozoic era ended in the great ball of fire, the continents again shifted.  Snakes went through a substantial evolutionary period during the Miocene and the original python-like snakes evolved into many different forms.  These new varieties of snakes slithered into grasslands, deserts, forests, and oceans around the world, but they still could not get to Ireland (now above the waves) because a cold ocean was in their way.  Then the end of the Miocene brought an ice age.  To quote the National Zoo’s essay on “Why Ireland Has No Snakes”:

The most recent ice age began about three million years ago and continues into the present. Between warm periods like the current climate, glaciers have advanced and retreated more than 20 times, often completely blanketing Ireland with ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded animals, simply aren’t able to survive in areas where the ground is frozen year round. Ireland thawed out for the last time only 15,000 years ago.

So Ireland remains snake-free because of the world’s temperamental geology. The island was underwater or covered by ice during certain eras when the snakes might have arrived–geography has conspired against serpents coming to Eire and setting up shop.  The age of humans however has been marked by numerous introduced species cropping up everywhere.  I wonder how long Ireland will be snake free when a pet shop accident or crazy hobbyist could unleash a plague of serpents on the green island.  The fact that such a thing has yet to happen seems almost as miraculous as the original myth.

Although many people construe the whole story to be an allegory of Saint Patrick driving paganism and the old gods from Ireland (as seen here).

(Simone Martini, c. 1324, tempera on panel)

Born in Siena, Simone Martini was a painter whose masterful technique, elegance, and narrative themes greatly influenced the development of the International Gothic painting style. Completed sometime around 1324, this is one of his masterpieces, a three panel altarpiece (with two additional tiny tondo portraits of holy elders of the church)  which illustrates the saintliness of Agostino Novello, a thirteenth century Sicilian nobleman and scholar who renounced earthly life after being left for dead on a battlefield. In an attempt to avoid public life, Agostino joined the Order of Saint Augustine–but a former schoolmate from the University of Bologna recognized him and informed influential bishops of Agostino’s learning. Agostino was dragged into the scholarly life of the church where he rose to become Pope Nicholas IV’s confessor and Grand Penitentiary.

Detail of altarpiece

By the time of this painting, some of the real details of Agostino’s life were being supplanted by miraculous stories, here arrayed in four small story panels around the central portrait of the holy man.

Detail of altarpiece

The stories are painted with delightful detail and elegance.  The narrative flow of each tale is immediately obvious. In the top left corner Agostino appears like spiderman, hanging upside down from a wall to revive a child who has been mauled by a creature which seems to be a cross between a Labrador retriever and a dragon.  The bottom left panel finds the renowned scholar swooping out of heaven to catch a falling child.  Continuing to the bottom right corner, Saint Agostino pops through a hole in existence to heal/resurrect a baby which has fallen from a badly constructed hanging crib (child safety seems to have been a major problem in Medieval Italy).  The top right story-picture shows Agostino aiding a praying knight whose comrade is trapped beneath a fallen steed.

Detail of altarpiece

The center panel shows the Saint standing serenely in a grove of stately trees which are filled with singing birds. He holds a book as an angel whispers divine truth in his ear—a lovely metaphor for scholarship.

Detail of fallen knight

The Triumph of Death (Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562, oil on panel)

Next week, as a lead-up to Halloween, Ferrebeekeeper will feature a week’s worth of dark harrowing spooky posts about…um, flowers.  However, just in case botany, herblore, and gardening are not terrifying enough for you, today’s disturbing subject should provide ample horror to fill up your Halloween nightmares [He isn’t kidding, this is a grim subject and squeamish readers should go look at kitten pictures-ed].  I first encountered this subject when I was looking at The Triumph of Death, an epic painting by Pieter Bruegel which portrays an army of skeletons erasing all life from a sweeping sixteenth century landscape.  The painting is a bravura combination of surrealist fantasy and extreme harrowing realism: the abstract and alien wave of death is sweeping away the realistically painted living humans .  Among Bruegel’s most nightmarish inventions are the high torture wheels dotted around the landscape which feature tiny sad carcasses suspended and spinning in the sky–except it turns out this was not some invention of Bruegel’s dark imagination.  The Catherine wheel or breaking wheel was in fact a common form of capital punishment from late antiquity up through the early modern era.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1598, oil on canvas)

The Catherine wheel was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a beautiful (and probably fictional) martyr who spurned the courtship of Emperor Maximinus and was then sentenced to die on the wheel. Fortunately Jesus intervened on her behalf. As soon as Catherine touched the wheel it broke to apart and the Romans were forced to merely behead her (sometimes I wonder if divine intervention could be more wholehearted in these sorts of stories).

The college shield of St. Catharine's College, Cambridge. Is a torture wheel their mascot?

Catherine’s wheel appears on a great many heraldic devices including the crest of Catharine’s College Cambridge and the coat of arms of Goa.  With its metal spikes and hooks it looks rather different from the wagon wheels in Bruegel’s artworks and it seems like it might be a more fanciful interpretation of the actual torture device.  Additionally Catherine’s wheel has given its name to a jaunty spinning firework!

Weeee!

The breaking wheel as historically known was a rather crude implement of torture.  It was reserved for the lowest and most debased criminals—commoners who had killed their families, committed murder during the course of theft, betrayed their lords, or otherwise outraged the community with excessive crimes.  The condemned prisoner was lashed to a large stout wagon wheel (or to a sturdy restraint if the available wagon wheel looked fragile) and then an executioner broke all of the prisoner’s limbs and joints with a cudgel or metal bar. Then the broken limbs were secured to (or threaded through) the spokes of the wheel and the prisoner was hoisted into the sky atop a pole. If the criminal was a gifted briber or a likeable person, the executioner would make sure the beating was fatal. If however the victim was despised or came upon a particularly sadistic torturer (what are the odds of that?) he would probably end up hopelessly maimed but still alive to contend with dehydration and birds. In fact there is an unhelpful looking bird perching on the wheel in the corner of that Bruegel painting (see the detail below).

This grisly punishment was popular throughout Northern Europe during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries (although apparently Russian overuse of the practice during the Great Northern War rather turned people off of it). The breaking wheel lingered for long enough in continental Europe that it dark left shadows lying across many different languages.  To quote Wikipedia:

In Dutch, there is the expression opgroeien voor galg en rad, “to grow up for the gallows and wheel,” meaning to come to no good. It is also mentioned in the Chilean expression morir en la rueda, “to die at the wheel,” meaning to keep silent about something. The Dutch phrases ik ben geradbraakt, literally “I have been broken on the wheel,” the German expression sich gerädert fühlen, “to feel wheeled,” and the Swedish verb rådbråka (from German radbrechen), “to break on the wheel,” all carry a meaning of exhaustion or mental exertion.

Additionally the word roué, a French word which has made it into English as a borrow word, originally indicated someone so dissipated that they were destined to end up executed on the wheel.

"Remember me as an obscure idiom!"

Ugh enough of that.  The moral of this story is to be thankful for the Eighth Amendment. Next week—the flowers of the underworld!

The Crown of Saint Wenceslas

A large number of the medieval crowns from Central Europe have gone missing over the years. These objects get snatched up and melted down by Prussians–like the crown of Bolesław–or they surreptitiously vanish from history forever like the beautiful crown of Zvonimir. Even the pieces that survive, such as the famous crown of St. Stephen, tend to go on strange adventures and end up in the hands of Jimmy Carter.

Not so the ancient crown of Saint Wenceslas, which was used in the coronation ceremonies for the kings of Bohemia.  That crown is locked up tight in a secret chamber in a secret chapel in the huge cathedral of Saint Vitus.  Seven Czech high officials possess keys—all of which must be used together.  Perhaps it is well that the crown is locked up so tightly—it is said to lie under a magic curse.

The Crown of Saint Wenceslas (a different angle)

The crown was made in 1347 for the eleventh king of Bohemia (and Holy Roman Emperor) Charles IV.  It is wrought of extremely pure gold and decorated with 19 sapphires, 44 spinels, 1 ruby, 30 emeralds and 20 pearls.  Charles dedicated the crown to Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia, and it is believed the Saint cannot abide any usurper to wear the crown (Saint Wenceslas was presumed to harbor a grudge about usurpers, having been murdered for a crown by his own brother).  Allegedly the Saint will smite down any unworthy soul who dons the crown within a year after he puts it on (the usurper that is—not Saint Wenceslas).It is rumored that Reinhard Heydrich, AKA “The Hangman”, the ruthless Nazi official in charge of the annexed portions of Czechoslovakia (which included St. Vitus Cathedral) could not risk the allure of the crown and secretly placed it on his head during a conqueror’s tour of St. Wenceslas Chapel. Heydrich was a favorite of Hitler’s who was heard to remark “We will Germanize the Czech vermin.” But he didn’t have much of a chance for Germanizing anyone–he was mortally wounded by British-trained Czech commandos in the awesomely named “Operation Anthropoid” less than a year after his tour of St. Vitus—a colorful and lurid tale for a colorful and lurid treasure.

The Skull of Saint Wenceslas wearing a Premyslid Eagle Circlet--Patron Saint of Bohemia, Brewing, Fuel-giving, & Nazi-killing

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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