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One of the most popular and instantly recognized symbols of classical antiquity did not make it through the millennia. The lituus was a spiral wand which looked a bit like a bishops crozier which was the symbol of augurs, diviners, and oracles in the Roman world. If you waved one around today, people would think it was an obscure prop from PeeWee’s Playhouse or a messed-up art student’s idea of a fern frond. Yet the lituus was everywhere in ancient Rome—it was on murals, and carved in statuary, and on the money. Musicians even developed a great brass trumpet to look like the sacred symbol (or possibly it was the other way around—the Etruscans had a war-trumpet which looked a great deal like the littuus and possibly gave its name to the scrying instrument).
Whatever the history and etymology, the Romans of the Republic and the Empire loved the lituus–and the whole world of divination, magical prophecies, and mystical portents which it represented. The littuus itself was seemingly used to mark a section of the sky to the eye of the interpreter of signs. Whatever birds flew through this quadrant represented what was to come. Obviously, there was just as much fraud, skullduggery, and flimflam in Roman divination as there is in modern tealeaves, horoscopes, tarot, and other such bollocks—but at least the Roman art had the grace of the natural worlds (as well as the raw violence which was stock and trade of all aspects of society in the ancient world).
Of course, it could be argued that the lituus isn’t quite as fully vanished as I have made it out to be. Scholars of comparative religion see the same shape in the Bishop’s curling crozier (bishops seem to have stolen the hats of Egyptian priests as well). To my eye the shape looks like a question mark, and has a similar meaning. I wonder where question marks came from.
(Crozier from Northern Italy in the early 14th century, bone and paint)
Musicians also owe fealty to the lituus, both as a symbol of otherworldly arcane spirit-knowledge and as a sort of ancient brass instrument. Modern horns evolved, to a degree, from the lituus and I wonder if it found its way into the “fiddle heads of rebecs and violins (although I am not going to research those connections today). Whatever the case, it is a lovely and interesting symbol for a branch of magical thought which the Romans held extremely dear and it is worth knowing by site if you plan on casting an eye on the ancient Mediterranean world.
Happy Valentine’s Day! The three traditional symbols of this holiday are (1) a voluptuous heart-shape, (2) Cupid, and (3) a pair of doves. The first of these—the shapely heart–is a medieval symbol, but the other two holiday symbols are much older and trace their way back to the ancient Greco-Roman world. The mischievous archer Cupid was the god of infatuation and besottment—with his phallic arrow, he is so ouvert that he is barely a symbol. In the world of Christian iconography, doves represent peace, divine revelation, and the holy spirit, however in the classical world they were the bird of Aprodite/Venus. Valentine’s Day is really Lupercalia—the fertility festival to Lupercus (Pan). In the modern world it (barely) masquerades as an acceptable holiday, but its wild roots are never far away. I get the sense these doves are really the amorous doves of Venus and not representations of peace.
To celebrate, here are some Valentine’s doves from Valentines throughout the ages.
Doves pulled the chariot of Venus and they nearly always attended to her. Their tenderness with each other and their ability to rapidly proliferate made them abiding symbols of love. Additionally, doves are uniquely beautiful and otherworldly and yet also commonplace. They can fly to the heights of heaven and yet consist on meager scraps in wastelands. Maybe doves really are a good symbol of love!
Ferrebeekeeper has long served Athena, the virgin goddess of truth and wisdom (although she is never the most popular goddess, she is certainly the BEST and is always is victorious in the end), and, in my time, I have also served Dionysus. All American are compelled to serve Hera for 8 hours every workday (except the super-rich, who serve her constantly). Yet Aphrodite has almost always eluded me. Springs come and go and the long decades pass, but love is elusive. Maybe some sacred doves will please coy Aphrodite.
In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone. I hope you find the love you are looking for in your life. Or at least I hope you enjoy these doves and maybe some chocolate!
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
Through the dark and improbable marketing magic of the Big Baking industry, today is National Donut Day (or possibly “National Doughnut Day” depending on how classical your tastes in pastry spelling are). Donuts are sweet snacks usually made of deep-fried flour dough. The traditional doughnut is ring shaped, probably because that is a very efficient way to make and evenly fry such a pastry (if the cake was a sphere or a disk, there would be uncooked dough in the middle), however there are also rod-shaped doughnuts, crème filled donuts, crullers, bearclaws, and heavens only knows what else! Donuts have a creation myth wherein a magnificent Dutch sea captain who loved pastries was piloting his galleon through a towering storm. The mariner was unwilling to let his ship sink and his crew perish, but he was equally unwilling to forgo the pleasure of fried pastries for even one moment, so he stuck the donuts on the ship’s wheel so he could devour them as he faced off against Poseidon. I say this is a myth because it seems likely that donuts predate the Dutch. They were probably invented by Sumerians in equally trying but now unknown circumstances. It’s still a great story though! I have heard that law enforcement officers have their own secret donut creation myths, but, since I am not a policeman these sacred traditions have never been vouchsafed to me. Maybe if you ask any of our friends in blue about this, you should be very circumspect…
Ferrebeekeeper has an immoderate fascination with toruses which stems from a peculiar combination of aesthetic, mathematical, and mystical factors. In my personal world of symbolism, the universe itself is a torus (it seems like it might well really be a torus, but our understanding of such matters is incomplete). The most familiar torus here on our Newtonian scale is the humble–but delicious & multitudinously variable—donut! So I paint lots of symbolic microcosmic paintings of donuts. I was amassing a whole wall of them, but I started to sell some so that I don’t have to live on the streets. Maybe they will be worth a bunch of money someday…. You could do me a huge favor and say exactly that to the art world professionals whom you meet in your life!
I have already put up photos of some of these doughnut paintings on this blog here and here (to say nothing of the painting of a toroid honey bundt cake which serves to represent the entire blog). In celebration of National Donut Day, here are two more Wayne Ferrebee original oil paintings (well, digital photographs of the same). The painting at the top is grandiloquently titled “There is Nothing Suspicious About these Glowing Treats in the Ocean Depths.” Three magnificent sugary donuts glowing within drift among the happy denizens of the deep ocean. A friendly anglerfish proffers a funny lure, while a near-eastern ewer drifts toward the ocean bottom. A glass squid with orange dots scuttles past the scene. In the murky background a passing shadow resolves into another friendly creature of some sort. A cynical & world-wary viewer might interpret the work as some sort of warning about impossible things that are too good to be true, but the enlightened art-lover recognizes it as an evocation of benthic wonders!
The second donut painting here is a very tiny painting (4 inches by 4 inches–so smaller than the image onscreen) which concerns the micro-world beneath us. It is appropriately titled “Cell Donut.” Against a dark magenta background, a courtly mummer performs some sort of dance/pantomime for a paramecium and a clutch of glowing eggs (or possibly cells). A diagrammatic cell is in the lower right corner with all the color and complexity of a future city.
I took a course in cell-biology one and in the first moments, as the biochemist started writing out the molecular processes of respiration, it hit me that the drama at a cellular level is, if anything, more intense and complicated than the goings on at our familiar human-size frame of reference. “Cell Donut” is meant to remind us that the real rewards and perils are within us already–for in the microsphere within our bodies, billions of cells are fighting, metabolizing, reproducing, and recycling with maddening vigor and ceaseless action. Also the tiny donut in the middle of the painting is a classic plain donut…an ideal symbol for national Donut Day (as opposed to some of my other dozens of donut paintings, which can often be quite baroque, phantasmagorical, or strange…or are just straight-up bagels!)
I hope you enjoy these paintings, and I also hope you manage to drop by the bakers to enjoy a well-deserved donut or two!
Note: No matter what I do, or how I try, I cannot get these paintings to display properly! It is obvious that Word Press hates me and hates my artwork, despite the fact that I have essentially been working for them for free for half a decade. I’m afraid you’ll have to click on the paintings in order for them not to appear all hideously cropped and mutilated as they look above. [sotto voce] mutter mutter…should have chosen “Blogger”…mutter, curse… “never “Fresh Pressed”… grumble grumble.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Last week’s post about Kelly green did not seem like enough to celebrate that vivid and timely hue, so here is a little still life painting I made long ago back when I was painting small collections of household objects. The symbolic import of the painting is unclear, but, thanks to its color palette, it certainly has a Saint Patrick’s Day feel. Protestant orange is condensed into a small glowing sphere—an orange star? A gumball? An eye? Two electric fuses of brass and muted green sit nearby. The majority of the composition is dedicated to a silk handkerchief filled with horrors and delights. Upon the glowing green field, a golden ring glistens evocatively next to a small bottle of some unknown elixir or extract. But beware: beside these ambiguous treasures a tiny orange scorpion lurks–waiting for the unwary hand. To me the composition has always seemed like what a person would find inside a leprechaun’s pockets if one were foolish enough to look there. Or maybe these are purchases from a derelict gumball machine which someone kept pumping quarters into in fading hopes of getting something better…
After weeks and weeks of ice, gloom, rain, and wind, I am already yearning for spring (although there is certainly plenty more winter left!). To keep everyone’s spirits up, here are various paintings and photos of people wearing crowns woven out of flowers. Such a headdress is the symbol of youth, vitality, happiness, growth, and warmth—the very opposite of winter’s barrenness. Gaze upon the lovely wreathes and floral garlands and think of the coming flowers and the green shoots of spring. Someday the gray rain, the dark rain, and the white ice will pass and the balmy weather and bright colors of spring will reemerge. Until then here are some allegorical pictures to remind you of the next season!
The astronomical symbol for the planet Venus, a circle with an attached dorsal cross, is the same symbol which is used in biology to represent the female gender. With the exception of Mother Earth (which understandably goes by many names), Venus is the only planet in this solar system named after a goddess. Even in other languages and cultures, Venus is often imagined as feminine: to the Persians she was Anahita; the Babylonians called her Ishtar or Inanna; and the Australian Aborigines called her Barnumbirr (we will say nothing about the Theosophists because everything is much better that way).
Considering the long association between Venus and goddesses, it is appropriate that international astronomic convention asserts that surface features of Venus should be named after women (or mythological women). Only a handful of features on the planet have male names (most notably the Maxwell Montes which are named after James Clerk Maxwell) and these masculine oddballs were grandfathered (grandmothered?) in before the female naming convention was adopted. Hopefully the future floating cities of Venus will also sport lovely female names as well…
To celebrate the 4th of July two years ago, I wrote a blog post about the national symbol of the United States and the original alternatives contemplated by the founding fathers (a post which was awesome since it was filled with turkeys, rattlesnakes, killer whales, and eagles). This year, I concentrate on a national mascot whom we all feel much more ambivalent about. I am talking, of course, about the somewhat awkward and unsettling figure of Uncle Sam.
The concept of Uncle Sam as a fictional stand-in for the government of the United States emerged during the War of 1812 when a meat supplier stamped his meat crates with “U.S.” and soldiers joked that this meant came from “Uncle Sam” (in fact “Uncle Sam” is mentioned in the Revolutionary-era song “Yankee Doodle” but it is unclear if he is a symbol of the nation or just, you know, somebody’s uncle). By 1816 Uncle Sam was the subject of humorous political tracts and by the time of the civil war he was a universally known representation of the United States government. Uncle Sam is traditionally portrayed as a thin patrician man with a snow white chin beard. He is dressed in a stars & stripe suit complete with an American flag themed hat. The comic portentousness of the figure has made Uncle Sam popular with America’s supporters and detractors both—so one might see him waving a flag and marching in a patriotic parade in Texas (as at the top) or on Iranian government broadsheets deviously backstabbing the Iranian people for oil. For example, here he is, portrayed as Yama, devouring the entire world through consumer culture and war.
For a time Uncle Sam stood only for the government whereas the citizenry itself was represented by Brother Jonathan, a long-winded New England tradesman in a frock coat and striped pants (Brother Jonathan himself had begun as a symbol of New England, but gradually came to represent the whole nation). By mid-nineteenth century Brother Jonathan was subsumed into Uncle Sam, who has remained more-or-less the same since that time (though sometimes he bulks up in muscle or in flab—depending on the cartoonist’s agenda).
Uncle Sam is frequently bowdlerized to sell cigars, financial vehicles, petrol, or what-have-you. During the golden age of comics, Uncle Sam even became a sort of nightmarish DC comic book hero: he was an extra-temporal super ghost (summoned by the founding fathers) who possessed dying patriots with superhuman powers in order to fight fascists and pirates…or something. Frankly, the concept may have needed some work.
Uncle Sam is used by too many people for too many reasons, and he is just not as magnificent as an Eagle. Even at his best, he is rather clownlike and awkward. Before Uncle Sam or Brother Jonathan, America was represented by Columbia, a beautiful warrior goddess with a Phrygian cap and a bustier spangled with stars! Curses! How did we trade down to end up with a Jefferson Davis lookalike dressed like a pimp?
Looking even further back, Columbia herself even seems to be a rip-off of Britannia, the trident-wielding, Minerva-hatted, warrior goddess who has been a symbol of Britain’s suzerainty since Roman times. Both Cousin Jonathan and Uncle Sam seem like line-extensions of the immensely popular John Bull. Maybe the idea of personifying nations as people is flawed. Having a frightening mascot in a strange primary color costume might be the right thing for a minor-league baseball team, but it ill-becomes the glory and complexity of our nation. Perhaps we should just stick with the majestic eagle which cannot be made to look so absurd….