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

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Today we feature an obscure color which used to be well known and frequently written about.  Isabelline, also known as “isabella,” is a pale, silvery yellowish-gray.  The name for the color is older than most color names in English and dates back to the Elizabethan era (circa 1600).  There are several compelling (but non-definitive) explanations of the etymology of the word.  My favorite explanation is that Infanta Isabella, a Spanish noblewoman vowed never to change her snow white garb until her husband,  Archduke Albert of Austria, was victorious in conquering Ostend, a Protestant stronghold in Flanders.  A hasty victory was expected, however, the city’s Dutch defenders were reinforced and supplied from the sea by the English and the siege lasted for three brutal years, by which time the Infanta’s gown was a very organic yellow-gray.  The story is probably apocryphal but it is nearly old as the color itself (and it draws our attention to the Siege of Ostend, which was as brutal and bloody as it was historically interesting).

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This Spanish connection of the name hints at why the English of the early 17th century were so excited by yellow-gray to begin with.  Isabella is a color of horses, an unparalleled fascination for people of that time! In modern horse terms, such steeds are pale palomino or cremello, but the hue isn’t too far off from ancestral grullo (these horse color names all seem to have a late medieval Spanish flair don’t they?).  At any rate, even though isabella is a common color for living things, it is perhaps not of not of paramount beauty to the jaded modern eye and the word has been gradually fading from usage.  This strikes me as a pity, since it is a much better word for that organic yellow-gray than uh, “yellow-gray.”

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Self-Portrait of Theodor de Bry (1597) engraving

Uh, happy Columbus Day…maybe? Some holidays don’t age well, and the Italian-American festival of the European rediscovery (and colonial conquest) of the New World certainly seems to be under exceedingly stern re-evaluation.  While other people are working on that project, let’s run away and check out some amazing and also quite problematic exploration-era art of the New World.  The Flemish illustrator and engraver Theodor de Bry was born is Spanish controlled Netherlands in 1528.  Both his father and his grandfather were engraver/illustrator/jewelers and they taught him the family trade (which he in turn passed down to his own son).  Although born a Catholic, the religious controversies and reforms of his time moved de Bry to convert to Protestantism, which caused enormous trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (which was all-powerful in the Netherlands, since the low countries were then a part of Spain).  Thus, in 1570, at the tender age of 42, De Bry and his family were permanently exiled from Spanish-controlled Liege, and all of his possessions were confiscated by the state/church.

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A refugee, De Bry moved first to moved to Strasbourg. Then in 1577, he moved to Antwerp (which was then part of the Duchy of Brabant).  Between 1585 and 1588 he lived in London, and then in 1588, De Bry and his family moved permanently to Frankfurt.  To make ends meet, he illustrated books concerning the exploration and geography of the New World.  If you reread the history of De Bry’s desperate scramble around Northern Europe, you may note that American destinations are notably lacking.  His famous engravings of the New World, which influenced a generation of rulers, thinkers, explorers, and artists were made by someone who never set eyes upon the New World.

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The Coast of Virginia (Theodor de Bry, ca. 1585-1586) engraving

All of this sounds pretty unpromising from a photojournalism perspective, and, indeed, De Bry’s works were criticized even in his time for inaccuracies.  The indigenous people all look a bit like naked Walloon peasants (except perhaps for the most exotic tribes–who look perhaps slightly Mediterranean with some Native American bangles and props).  The new world forts and seedling colonies are portrayed as though they were erected in a Baroque nobleman’s parterre garden.  Also there are more frolicksome naiads, random Greek gods, and mysterious mythological beasts like sea serpents, dragons, and capricorns than was perhaps literally accurate.

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Engraving of Columbus, the discoverer of the New World (Theodor de Bry, 1594)

Yet, despite, this (or maybe because of this) De Bry’s illustrations strike me as exquisite works of art.  They pack enormous amounts of complicated yet comprehensible visual information into tiny narrative/didactic frames.  De Bry did carefully read the primary source accounts of adventurers, natural historians, and other New World-involved folk.  He collected artworks and studied curios and ethnological objects. Additionally, if you look closely at De Bry’s personal history, you may find reasons for him to dislike the Spanish masters of the Americas.  I suspect if you look at the seething anti-European anti-Western diatribes of the internet today, you would be hard-pressed to find descriptions more lurid and anti-Spanish then some of De Bry’s works. The Spanish may frequently be the protagonists, but the cruel lords clad in velvet and armor are not exactly heroes, even as they travel through exoticized realms of peculiar cruelty and mayhem designed…to sell books.

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For, as much as he was a pioneer of imagery of the Americas, De Bry was a pioneer of new media.  Just as the internet has unleashed a torrent of exciting new ideas, robust philosophies, incomprehensible imagery, lies, half-truths, and heartfelt personal convictions upon an unexpecting world, the first great blossoming of the printing press in the 16th century saw a similar boom (upon societies even less equipped to handle this information than we are equipped to make sense of the info overload of today).  I can’t tell you what to make of De Bry.  Much of his work is more disturbing and more problematic than what I have included here.  But I feel like it is all visual treasure which you should seek out (if you have a strong stomach).  Of all the artworks about the mad crash of civilizations when America and Europe came together, his work burns brightest in my mind’s eye.

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Their danses vvhich they vse att their hyghe feastes (De Bry, 1590) Engraving

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Today we feature a masterpiece of Visigoth art.  This is a silver medallion from the Iberian Peninsula during the 5th-7th century A.D. which shows Bellerophon killing the Chimera with a lance.  The work is an anomaly:  it was made in early Medieval Christendom and has the style and workmanship of that time, yet its subject is entirely Greco-Roman in nature.   In ancient Greek myth, Bellerophon was a mythical Corinthian demigod who was the son of Poseidon.  With Athena’s help, he tamed Pegasus, a winged steed born of violence and ancient gods & monsters.  Bellerophon used this power of flight (and his own martial prowess) to kill the three headed chimera–part lion, part goat, and part snake–one of the most convoluted and confusing monsters of ancient mythology (and one of the children of Echidna, the great mother of monsters). Yet Bellerophon’s heroic deeds went to his head and he tried to fly up to the top of Mount Olympus and take a place among the Gods.  Because of his hubris, the gods cast him down.  They took Pegasus back, and the maimed Bellerophon was left as a crippled beggar.   Clearly the story appealed to somebody during the chaotic centuries after the Empire blew apart as different hordes fought their way back and forth across Spain, Gaul, and the Mediterranean. Pegasus has lost his wings in this version, but the long centuries of chaos and political and cultural upheaval have given it pathos. Look at the expression of fortitude and resignation on the warrior’s face!

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One theory of aesthetics asserts that every human-manufactured item provides profound insights into its makers and their society.  In college, we had endless fun (or some reasonably proximate substitute) by grabbing random kitschy mass-produced objects and deconstructing them so that all of the peccadillos of wage-capitalism in a mature democracy were starkly revealed. Alone among college endeavors, this proved useful later on, when I worked at the National Museum of American History (where the staff was employed to do more-or-less the same thing). Seemingly any item could provide a window for real understanding of an era.   Thus different aspects of our national character were represented by all sorts of objects: harpoons, sequined boots made in a mental asylum, an old lunch-counter, gilded teacups, or miniature ploughs…even a can of Green Giant asparagus from the 70s [btw, that asparagus caused us real trouble and was a continuing problem for the Smithsonian collection: but we will talk about that later on in an asparagus-themed post]. The objects which were significant were always changing and things regarded as treasures in one era were often relegated to the back of off-site storage facility by curators of the seceding generation, but a shrewd observer could garner a surprisingly deep understanding of society by thinking intelligently about even apparently frivolous or trivial objects.

 

Anyway, all of this is roundabout way of explaining that Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Day of the Dead by deconstructing these two skull-themed items.  At the top is a skull-shaped candle holder with a bee on it. At the bottom is a skull shaped lotion-dispenser. One dispenses light while celebrating the eusocial insects at the heart of agriculture; the other dispenses unguents and celebrates the reproductive organs of plants. But of course, when we look at these items more closely, there is more to them than just a decorated lamp and a cosmetics container.

The Día de Muertos skull already represents a syncretic blend of two very opposite cultures: the death-obsessed culture of the Aztecs who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm, and the death-obsessed culture of the Spaniards who built an empire of slavery and sacrifice to make up for dwindling resources at the center of their realm.  Um…those two civilizations sounded kind of similar in that last sentence, but, trust me, they were from different sides of an ocean and had very different torture-based religions.

Beyond the obvious cultural/religious history of Mestizo culture, the two skulls have bigger things to say about humankind’s relationship with our crops.  The features of the death’s head have been stylized and “cutened” but even thus aestheticized it provides a stark reminder of human mortality. We burgeon for a while and then pass on. Yet the day of the dead skull is a harvest-time ornament. It is made of sugar or pastry (well not these two…but the original folk objects were) and covered in flowers, grain, and food stuffs. The skulls portray humankind as a product of our agricultural society.    The harvest keeps coming…as do seceding generations of people…just as the old harvest and the old people are used up—yet they are always a part of us like a circle or an ouroboros.  Each generation, a different group of people comes to work the fields, and eat sugar skulls and pass away–then they are remembered with sugar skulls as their grandchildren work the fields etc…

Lately though, things have started to rapidly change. Although agriculture is the “primary” economic sector which allows all of the other disciplines, most of us no longer work in the fields. Instead we partake of secondary sector work: manufacturing things.  In this era we are even more likely to be in the third (or fourth) sector: selling plastic skulls to each other, or writing pointless circular essays about knickknacks.

Marketers have inadvertently built additional poignant juxtapositions into these two skull ornaments. The skull at the bottom is a lotion or soap dispenser. It is meant to squirt out emollients so that people can stay clean and young and supple in a world where old age still has no remedy. The irony is even more sad in the skull on the top which shows a busy bee: the classical symbol of hard work paying off. Yet the bees are dying away victims to the insecticides we use to keep our crops bountiful.  Hardwork has no reward in a world where vast monopolistic forces set prices and machines churn out endless throw-away goods. Indeed, these two objects are not beautiful folk objects…they are mass-produced gewgaws meant to be bought up and thrown away. In the museum of the future will they sit on a shelf with a little note about bees or lotion or crops written next to them, or will they join a vast plastic underworld in a landfill somewhere?

Or maybe they are just endearing skulls and you aren’t supposed to think about them too much.  But if a skull does not make the observer think, then what object ever will?

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José de Ribera (1591 – 1652) was one of the greatest of Spanish artists. I paint–I studied very seriously with a master portraitist for many years–and I can usually understand how a painting was put together and executed, but the craftmanship of Ribera paintings tends to stand beyond my comprehension. When I come across one of his works in a museum, the dazzling virtuosity leaves me stupefied. He should be one of the foremost of the old masters…his name upon every lip like Rembrandt, Tintoretto, or Caravaggio. Yet in the museum, I see the other visitors turn away from his canvases.

Though a Spaniard, Ribera studied in Italy, and spent most of his life working there. In the 17th century, the peninsula was divided by great powers, and Spain, at the zenith of its empire, controlled the Kingdom of Naples. Ribera, a Spaniard who painted exquisitely in the Italian style was the favorite of the Spanish viceroys who ruled Naples. Ribera is an exceedingly great painter, but he was an exceedingly dark painter…a Tenebrist, and he is said to have had a matching dark personality. There are whispers that he utilized ruthless court intrigue and outright violence to monopolize worthwhile artistic commissions in Naples (a city with its own shadowside and a sinister history). This brings us to today’s dark artwork which I have put at the top of the post. This is “Apollo and Marsyas” (Jusepe de Ribera, 1637, oil on canvas). Ribera’s art combined the dark action and shadowy super-realism of Caravaggio with the deliquescent supernatural otherworldiness of Corregio (a puissant and disquieting combination). Here is the nightmare denouement of the tale of Apollo and Marsyas (you should reacquaint yourself with the myth if you are unfamiliar). A pure black diagonal bar slashes across the composition: Marsyas is inside that void, upside down, screaming in agony as the flaying begins. Apollo looms above him, both an omnipotent god and an implacable killer. His red cloak billows behind him like a tunnel of blood through which he has burst into the mortal world. The witnesses look on in dazed shock or scream outright at the nature of the proceedings. The instruments of music are cast aside forgotten, as violence and pain take center stage. It is a bloodbath on canvas–a horror movie painted by the matchless hand of an all-time master.

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And here is where Ribera goes wrong. The son of a shoe-maker painted his way to unparalleled wealth and status. Through his hard work and ruthless machinations, his family was enobled, but the struggle cast shadows across his work. There is real sadism in the beautiful and intent visage of Apollo as he fingers the incarnadine slit. There is true pain in the inverted face of Marsyas. Look at the other works of Ribera–they are all so gorgeous…but they are all so awful. In the allegory of Apollo and Marsyas, a personal challenge each artist must face, Ribera cast himself as Apollo. He and his art failed a moral challenge. Look upon it, dear reader, are there tests which you are failing too?

Corona votiva de Recesvinto. Parte del Tesoro de Guarrazar. Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España, Madrid.

Behold! This is the votive crown of the Visigoth King Reccesuinth. It is the finest piece from the fabled “Treasure of Guarrazar” a collection of 27 votive crowns, numerous hanging crosses, and various gold buckles and brooches which was discovered in a Spanish orchard in the 1850s. The treasure was manufactured by master jewelers and goldsmiths of the Visigoths during the 7th century AD. The pieces display a breathtaking combination of Byzantine and Germanic style. Nobody knows how they ended up in the orchard (which may have once been a graveyard or a fallen Roman ruin), although some people have speculated they were hidden there from the Moors. Although much of the treasure has vanished over the years (including an almost equally fine votive crown of King Suinthila) what remains is extraordinary—even after many of the pieces have vanished, the Treasure of Guarrazar is still the finest collection of early medieval votive crowns.

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Speaking of which, a votive crown is not meant to be worn. It is a treasure in the shape of a crown given to the church by a sovereign (or some other entity rich enough to be handing out jeweled crowns). These were hung above the altar of a church. In a way I is a sort of hanging sculpture–as is further illustrated by the “pendilla” the dangling ornaments hanging beneath the crown (a style which was also used in the medieval Crown of Saint Stephen). The letters among the pendilla spell out “RECCESVINTHVS REX OFFERET“ (King Reccesuinth gave this). The dark blue stones are sapphires from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), which illustrates that, even in the 7th century, trade was a global affair.

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (Juan Sánchez Cotán, ca. 1600, oil on canvas)

Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560 A.D. – 1627 A.D.) was a Spanish painter who had a successful career painting altarpieces,  religious works, portraits, and still lifes for the elite art patrons of Toledo.  At the age of 43 he closed up his studio, renounced the world, and entered the great Carthusian monastery of Santa María de El Paular as a monk.   In his final years of painting as an independent artist–just before he left for the cloister in 1603–he mastered a highly realistic style of small ascetic still life paintings called bodegones.    The subjects of these paintings were generally fruit and vegetables, although sometimes a gamebird or ceramic object is included.   The composition is spare to the point of minimalism: setting is reduced to a few matte black angles.  The dramatically lit fruits and vegetables cast deep ominous shadows.  Although the hacked up melon takes pride of place, the quince and cabbage hang dramatically in the middle suspended from twine.  There is an enigmatic and mannered intensity to these works–as though the humble comestibles have become protagonists in a great tragic play or a melancholic opera.  Yet the drama remains elusive and we are left with a tight realistic painting.  Perhaps we will never know why the ornate cabbage seems so downcast despite its flamboyant leaves, or why the cucumber is a nosy outsider, or how the quince seems to be flying away to grace.   Despite the objectively rendered precision of the painting, the beautiful produce of Cotán’s little still life jealously keeps its own secret meaning.

What will the world do without him?

What will the world do without him?

The King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, has officially announced his intention to abdicate his throne and crown so that his son, the Crown Prince Felipe can take over. Juan Carlos assumed the throne on November 22, 1975, two days after the death of life dictator Franco. Spain has been a constitutional monarchy ever since with the king commanding largely ceremonial powers (with real power held by elected officials). The Spanish monarchy however has deep roots which reach back to the Visigothic kingdoms of the 5th century which fought the Reconquista to regain the Iberian Peninsula from the Umayyad Caliphate (those Goths end up everywhere).

Crown of of Alfonso of Spain

Crown of of Alfonso of Spain

Despite the King’s popularity, many people argue about the relevance of monarchy to modern Spain (an argument which took on new relevance after the King’s unpopular decision to murder an elephant as part of a canned hunt during the height of the Great Recession). Whether decrepit and largely superfluous monarchs should be allowed to leach off of the public coffers is, however, not the concern of this blog. Instead we concentrate on the actual crown of Spain, known as the crown of Alfonso of Spain. This is less simple than it sounds since the crown of Alfonso does not actually exist as such, but is instead a heraldic conceit. It appears above and is a magnificent confabulation of rubies, emeralds, and pearls surmounted by a blue orb with a cross. The jpeg above is as real as the crown gets—it is purely notional.

Spain's “Corona Tumular” (originally the funeral crown of Elisabeth Farnese, Queen consort of Philip V)

Spain’s “Corona Tumular” (originally the funeral crown of Elisabeth Farnese, Queen consort of Philip V)

After the conquest of the new world, Spain was, for a time, the richest kingdom in Europe, and the Spanish crown jewels were very fancy indeed, but these lavish treasures vanished during the time of Napoleon when the Iberian peninsula was plunged into war and chaos. The Spanish monarchy, likewise, declined in importance and majesty since those days. The crown used at official royal proclamations (seen above) is a funeral crown from the 18th century (and is essentially what was found left over in the Spanish monarchy’s attic, after the Napoleonic wars). It was made of silver with gold plating for the funeral of Elisabeth Farnese, Queen consort of Philip V.  Yet even this not-very-good crown has not been seen in public since 1981 (so Spanish prop-makers might be busy in coming months).

Supay Harvesting Souls (Oliver Akuin, ca. 2000-2010, ink on paper)

Supay Harvesting Souls (Oliver Akuin, ca. 2000-2010, ink on paper)

One of the biggest problems in writing about deities of the underworld is their unseemly tendency to morph into each other. For example take the Incan deity Supay.  Supay started out strong, as the god of death for all Incan people.  Not only did he personify the terrifying enigma of mortality, he was also the supreme ruler of the Ukhu Pacha, the afterlife/underworld—plus, as a special bonus, he ruled a race of demons.  Yes, things were looking pretty good for old Supay, until suddenly in the sixteenth century, Francisco Pizarro showed up.  As smallpox and the Spaniards destroyed the Incan empire (and left the landscape littered with piles of corpses) Supay the death god had one last magnificent fling–but within a few short decades, Spanish control over Peru was absolute.

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This could have been the end of Supay—gods often die out when the cultures that created them are assimilated.  Yet Supay lived on in the daily lives of indigenous Peruvians.  As the Catholic Church became the dominant religious institution of Peru, Supay became entwined with the Devil.  Supay’s horns, claws, and demon hordes already greatly resembled the Christian idea of how Satan should look. Supay’s underworld realm, Uku Pacha, had been closely associated with agrarian customs of breaking new ground and tilling the earth to plant potatoes,  The Spaniards brought intensive underground mining—and Supay’s rituals became associated with the dangers of tunneling and delving.  Catholic missionaries encouraged the conflation of Supay and Satan in order to consolidate their hold on Native Americans and Mestizos.

A Peruvian Miner with A Supay Votive Statue

A Bolivian Miner with A Supay Votive Statue

If anyone else suddenly, you know, merged into Satan, it would probably be a big problem! Yet Supay has made the transition with aplomb.  Even today, the Peruvian image of Satan owes a great deal to the older underworld god, and Supay worship is still alive and well among miners and excavators!

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Cordovan Penny-loafers

Cordovan Penny-loafers

As is usual in New York’s wet cold winters, my favorite everyday shoes have disintegrated.  They were a pair of old fashioned cordovan penny-loafers and, as I discarded them, I wondered why the lovely maroon/burgundy color is called cordovan. It turns out that the simple question has a complicated answer which winds back to late antiquity when the city of Corduba was the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior (in fact the city was initially named Kartuba by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca).  When the Roman empire broke into pieces, Hispanica Ulterior was overrun by Vandals who were subsequently defeated and replaced by Visigoths (a sequence of internecine conquests and reconquests which lasted from the 5th through the 7th centuries).

Visigoth Brooches from Southwest Spain ca. 6th century AD (in the Walters Art Museum)

Visigoth Brooches from Southwest Spain ca. 6th century AD (in the Walters Art Museum)

The Visigoths were a branch of the Germanic tribe of Gothic people who converted to Arian Christianity (remember the heretic Arius from the story of St. Nikolaos—his theological survived in the Viisgoth kingdoms of Western Europe).  The Visigoths were evidently great leatherworkers/cobblers, and they reputedly created the original cordovan leather.  This did not initially refer to the color but was a special sort of extremely tough leather which was made from the flat muscle (“the shell”) of a horse’s rump. Cordovan leather was especially suited to boot toes, straps, and archery equipment—all of which had to be especially tough and thick.

Columns of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (now the Cathedral of Cordoba)

Columns of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (now the Cathedral of Cordoba)

Corduba was captured by new invaders in AD 711 and became part of the Umayyad Caliphate which was run from Dasmascus, however the region broke away and became an independent emirate in AD 766.  This state (named al-Andalus) subsequently grew into a powerful caliphate itself.  During the 10th century, Cordoba, then known as Qurṭubah, was one of the largest and most cultured cities on Earth.

The Flag of Córdoba

The Flag of Córdoba

In 1236, King Ferdinand III of Castile captured Qurtubah and renamed it Córdoba.  Although the city declined in the Renaissance era it evidently remained famous for its leatherworks.  The English first began to use the word “cordovan” to describe the oxblood color of cordovan-style leather goods in the 1920s.

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Anyway, so that’s the history behind the name of the color of the shoes I just threw away.  I guess they were named by Hamilcar Barca…

Hamilcar Crushing the Roman Navy and...wearing a Cordovan Color undertunic

Hamilcar Crushing the Roman Navy and…wearing a Cordovan Color undertunic

 

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