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apollo-and-marsyas-1637

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?

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

Neo-Assyrian Shock Troops

The Assyrians were one of the great palace civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia. As one of the first known civilizations, their culture came of age along the upper Tigris River in tandem with Sumer, Ur, and Babylon (Semitic kingdom states which blossomed along the pattern of ancient Eridu).  The old Assyrian empire was an early Bronze Age empire which lasted from 2025 BC-1393 BC.  The Middle Assyrians were united under a series of politically powerful king priests and flourished until the great Bronze Age Collapse—a century of chaos and horror which lasted from 1055–936 BC.  After this cataclysm, the shattered remnants of Assyrian society rebuilt along the same lines—but now they had a technological breakthrough—iron.  With strong political leadership they were well-positioned to utilize this innovation, and the Iron Age Neo-Assyrians were charioteers and conquerors.  Their armies set about building the greatest empire the world had ever known based around iron, axels, horses, and ruthless political hegemony.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Neo-Assyrian Gypsum wall panel relief showing Ashurnasirpal II hunting lions, 865BC – 860 BC.

Into this picture came Ashurnasirpal II, who ascended the Assyrian throne in 883 BC. Ashurnasirpal II was a great builder, thinker, and a reformer.  He moved the capital of the empire from Assur to Nimrud and erected a series of new walled cities.  He collected zoological and botanical specimens from all around the known world in hopes of furthering agriculture and fostering a deeper understanding of living things (presumably).  Alas, he was also a political theorist and he realized he could utilize horrifying violence as a political tool.  He reasoned that if he tortured and killed the entire population of one rebel city, other cities would not rebel (a theory which pretty much worked after the first vivid demonstration). History remembers him as a ghastly butcher, but he was also famed in his day as a mighty conqueror and an innovator.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Bas relief from the palace of King Sennacherib: Assyrian soldiers flay the captives of the conquered city of Lachish in 701 BC.

Anyway, the Neo Assyrians in general, and Ashurnasirpal II in particular feature in this week’s blog because they wanted their violence to be as gruesome as possible.  Threats and executions worked best if people were truly & utterly terrified.  Far beyond merely killing their enemies, the Neo-Assyrians needed to kill them slowly, painfully, and with real flair.  Their favorite methods for accomplishing this were spitting and burning (which is how they are remembered in the Bible). However their most hated enemies were flayed alive—which we know because we have pictorial evidence in the form of horrible bas reliefs.  Not only that, we have a direct quote from Ashurnasirpal II, who ponderously (but chillingly) said:

I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins. The captives I have killed by the sword and flung on the dung heap, the little boys and girls were burnt.

It is not exactly an idealistic political statement, but it has a real visceral power. And it did have real power: the Neo-Assyrians conquered the rest of Mesopotamia, and then the Near-East, and then Egypt itself.  They kept on moving using fast chariots to sweep away armies and terror to keep control. However, like so many conquerors they were trapped by their lifestyle.  The Assyrian kingpriest’s power came from building great temples to the Assyrian gods, he accomplished this with booty from conquest. When the conquest stopped the whole nightmarish system came tumbling down, and the enemies of Neo-Assyria quickly learned ways to defeat chariot armies. By the 7th century the victories began to dry up, and the empire collapsed in 627 BC. Today the Neo-Assyrians are remembered, not as cutting edge innovators, but as monsters—the first masters of the blitzkrieg and of mass terror sponsored by the state.

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A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

A Flayed man holding his own skin (Gaspar Becerra, 1556, Etching)

It’s Halloween week already: the time when the spirit realm comes closest to the mortal world (well, according to ancient lore, anyway).   This is always a “theme week”, which Ferrebeekeeper devotes to a single topic which is sinister, magical, disquieting, and macabre.  In past year’s we have taken on dark subjects like the children of Echidna, the Flowers of the Underworld, the undead, and the realm of nightmares, but this year we are going back to the roots of civilization to examine an ancient horror.  Sadly, this ghastly topic is not a dark myth or an accursed dream, but an all-too real invention of human savagery.

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Flaying is a method of torture and execution, which was used in ancient times (and not-so-ancient times) to kill a person in the most terrible and painful way.  Of course hunters and animal farmers are familiar with flaying as stripping the skin off of a dead animal so that the hide can be cured as a pelt or a leather, and so that the animal’s meat can then be butchered for consumption (although this is more commonly known as “skinning” in English).  This is done with a knife or similar sharpened implement and farmers/hunters/chefs generally try to keep the hide as intact as possible. At some point in the depths of prehistory, some evil person first realized the same method could be used to cut the skin off of a living person.   Skinning more than a portion of a person is fatal.  Wikipedia blandly cites Ernst G. Jung, a famed dermatologist, writing:  “Dermatologist Ernst G. Jung notes that the typical causes of death due to flaying are shock, critical loss of blood or other body fluids, hypothermia, or infections, and that the actual death is estimated to occur from a few hours up to a few days after the flaying.”  How did Jung know that?  We want to know and yet clearly we also do not want to know. I found a lot of arguments online about whether modern medicine could rescue a flayed person.  I will summarize the upshot of lots of nightmarish dumbassery as “maybe… in perfect circumstances, but probably not.”

lelli-collection

At this point, if you are like me you are probably saying “GLAAARGH! What the hell? Why would anybody ever do such a thing? And why write about it? Why should I even think about such monstrous savagery? I am going to go look at pictures of cute little songbirds.”  That is a good point and those questions/sentiments are very pertinent, but you should not go to the cute animal site yet.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Here is a cute little bird to break the tension.

Flaying keeps cropping back up in human history, art, and myth.  It reveals something about us in a dark tale which stretches across millennia.  Mostly, of course, it reveals that we are very tragic and cruel animals, but that is a truth well worth remembering (assuming you can somehow not see it within the daily news).  Flaying also reveals some of our stagecraft for manipulating and controlling each other–which I will get into tomorrow with the story of the Neo-Assyrians.  Additionally there is a mysterious and otherworldly hint of true transformation within this topic—a suggestion of the butterfly, the cocoon, and true transcendence from the body—although admittedly this miracle which did not quite come off properly. We will get to this as we look at flaying in art and religion.

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

High Fashion by Jean Paul Gautier

If you can stay with me, this week ends with a fun surprise on Halloween (which I have been working on for a long time and saving for you)…but there is some pretty dark territory to get through before then.  Gird up your loins (no seriously, you may want to tie something protective around your flesh), tomorrow we are going back to the age of chariots and horror to spend some time with the neo-Assyrians.  Aaaagh!

l'Écorché

l’Écorché “The Flayed Man” ( Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1767, cast)

5th Century Red and black vase of Orestes

5th Century Red and black vase of Orestes

One of the best things about the Greek mythological pantheon is that it contains gods who ruled before the Olympians but have passed into obscurity…as well as weird outsiders who hardly seem to belong in the story at all. Some of these deities were once central to things but have been broken, defeated and deposed (like Cronus), whereas others are otherworldly and cling to the darkest most shadowy edges of mythical realm (like Nyx, the goddess of primeval night). I bring this up to introduce the Erinyes, the goddesses of savage unending vengeance, who are sometimes known in English by the heavy-metal name “the Furies”.

Orestes chased by the Erinyes (Carl Rahl, ca. 1852, oil on canvas)

Orestes chased by the Erinyes (Carl Rahl, ca. 1852, oil on canvas)

The Erinyes are mentioned in the oldest surviving Greek texts which we can translate. They punished the most terrible criminals who had violated the fundamental moral order of ancient Greece (a slave society where murder was a part of everyday life). Those who felt the endless wrath of the furies were guilty of crimes such as violating oaths, abusing guests, committing incest, or murdering kinfolk. The Erinyes’ dwelled in the underworld, but if a malefactor brought their wrath upon himself, they would pursue him across the land, the seas, and beyond till they could rip him apart. Death brought no release from their tortures–since they carried their victims’ spirits to the depths of Tartarus to punish forever with snakes, flails, burning brands, and brass-studded whips. The Erinyes took the form of horrible angels: they had huge dark wings and the bodies of twisted hags (although occasionally they could take on a terrible beauty). Some poets asserted there were three furies—Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone–but in other sources they seem numberless and lacking individuality.

Orestes seeks shelter from the Furies at teh Foot of Athena (Engraving from G. Schwab's Die schönsten Sagen, 1912)

Orestes seeks shelter from the Furies at teh Foot of Athena (Engraving from G. Schwab’s Die schönsten Sagen, 1912)

Erinyes show up in the most horrible myths of murder, savagery, and everything gone appallingly wrong. They therefore make appearances in some great works of literature and art…like The Eumenides, the final play of the Oresteia. In fact the name The Euminides (meaning “the kindly ones”) refers to the dreadful Erinyes—for like Hades (or Voldemort) it was thought unwise to refer to them except via euphemism. There are different versions of how the ancient goddesses came into being. According to Hesiod they were born when the Titan Cronus castrated his father the sky god Uranus, and threw his genitalia into the sea (an event which also precipitated the birth of Aphrodite). Other poets, however assert that they are even older and descend directly from the outsider goddess Nyx, who predates the other gods.

The Remorse of Orestes (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862, oil on canvas)

The Remorse of Orestes (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862, oil on canvas)

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, a six week season of self-denial, repentance, and fasting observed among certain traditional-minded Christian denominations.  Although I myself have no particularly ascetic intentions for Lent, it seems appropriate to mark the occasion with two vivid grisaille paintings by the great fifteenth century Flemish master Hieronymus Bosch, whose bizarre religious visions are among the strangest and most compelling works of painting (despite decades of deliberate strangeness by 20th and 21st century artists) .

The Left Outside Panel of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The Left Outside Panel of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The term ”grisaille” describes a completely monochromatic painting in which all colors have been removed and the values are all rendered in countless shades of black, white, and (especially) gray. The grisaille technique was sometimes used for underpainting by the old masters who would then add color later.  It was also used to portray sculptures, to cover large walls (in the fashion of trompelœil illusion), or, most interestingly, as the opposite side of triptych screens and altarpieces.  If a hinged triptych was closed, the two grisaille panels would become all that was visible.

The Right Outside Panel of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

The Right Outside Panel of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Hieronymus Bosch, 1502, oil on panel)

These two paintings are the reverse of what may be Hieronymus Bosch’s most bizarre work, The Temptation of Saint Anthony which was finished in 1502, and can now be found at the Museo Nacional de Antiqua, Lisbon.  The Temptation of Saint Anthony deserves its own post (or its own book), but suffice to say it is a truly deeply strange rendering of the beings who accosted the saint after he went to the desert to pray, fast, and repent as a hermit.  It is a scatalogical hellscape filled with pig-priests, ambulatory jugs, stomach monsters, and flying fish crane ships.  Describing the actual painting exceeds my not-inconsiderable descriptive prowess: you will have to go look at it yourself.  However the work was created in such a fashion that the left and right panel can close in front of the central panel (probably so that the painting’s original owners did not have their brains fried by the twisted nightmares swirling around the saint).  When the actual painting was “shut” the two paintings above became visible.  In stark monocolor, the paintings portray the sufferings of Christ as he moved towards his crucifixion.  Great bestial crowds torture and mock the savior as he crawls on his knees (in the left panel) or is crushed by the weight of his cross (in the right panel), yet it is the torments of the human figures in the foreground which draws our eyes.

Here are the inside panels of "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" but don't look at them yet--we are talking about the grisaille panels on the outside

Here are the inside panels of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” but don’t look at them yet–we are talking about the grisaille panels on the outside

In the right image a grim black storm fills the sky above Golgotha.  In the left, the Flemish landscape recedes into a blinding gray erasure.  Perhaps the most disturbing element of these paintings is the ordinary everyday 15th century Netherlandish garb worn by the people around Christ—and the everyday nature of Christ’s tormentors themselves. Are there children among the tormenting throngs?  Of course these magnificent paintings are not really important compared to the true paintings inside the altarpiece.  The one time I saw The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the work was open and the grisaille paintings were turned to the wall—barely visible in the shadows.

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

Baphomet, the Templars, and some sort of absurd Victorian Charlatan

In 1307, Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (a military order more commonly known as the Knights Templar).  The Templars had originated during the first crusade as a monastic order dedicated to helping pilgrims reach Jerusalem.  They soon became a powerful military presence in Outremer (the Christian-held lands within the Middle East) and because of an extra-national network of knights, they amassed immense power and wealth around Europe.  Since they had a financial infrastructure which stretched through many different countries, the Templars began acting as bankers (imagine if you deposited gold in England, and then withdrew it in Jerusalem without having to carry it through all the bandit-infested areas between).  They took over and managed the estates of noblemen who took up the cross and went to fight in the crusades, and, as Philip could attest, they leant money.  Some historians regard them as the first multinational corporation of Europe.

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Philip IV really liked money and he hated repaying debts.  In 1306 he had exiled France’s Jews so that he could take over the loans which had been made by them.  When rumors started cropping up about the profane nature of the Templar’s initiation rituals, the French king made sure the rumors spread widely and gained credence.  He used his influence over Pope Clement V (a weak pope who was almost entirely under Philip’s control) to squelch the order.  On October 13th 1307, hundreds of French Templars were rounded up and arrested.  They were then subjected to intense torture in order to find out the truth of their heresies.  Unsurprisingly, under torture, the imprisoned Templars confessed to all sorts of heresies (and other sins).  One of the things which Templars confessed to was worshipping the dark god Baphomet.  Baphomet had originated as a mispronunciation of Mohammed among untutored French soldiers during the First Crusade, however he was about to transcend his roots and become a deity in his own right.

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

Philip IV contemplates a group of Templars who have been tied to stakes and surrounded with flammable materials for some reason

With inspiration supplied by torturers the Templars came up with all sorts of examples of how they worshipped Baphomet idols and committed enormities in his name.  Philip’s purpose was to destroy the Templars not to find out truth and the Baphomet story worked very well.  Other imprisoned Templars were questioned about the entity, and when the rack and iron and pinchers were applied, they suddenly confirmed their fellow prisoners’ stories about the dark demon-god.

Baphomet, a hitherto nonexistent deity was literally born from the pain and fear and misinformation of the torture chamber.   During the 19th century, there was a burst of historical interest in the destruction of the Templars (I have left the ghastly details out of this post, but Philip IV was entirely effective in crushing the order for personal gain: the grandmaster of the Templars was burned at the stake in the middle of Paris in 1314).  Various authorities of the occult (which is to say fabulists) became interested in Baphomet and started providing further information about him.  Baphomet came to be pictured as a “Sabbatic Goat” a winged androgynous being with a pair of breasts, a goat’s head, and various evil supernatural accessories and emblems.

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

Baphomet as imagined by Victorian Occultists

This image of Baphomet was seized on by Aleister Crowley, the influential English occultist, whose works had such an influence on modern neopaganism.  As a result, Baphomet has become popular.  You can buy devotional books and resin statues of him more easily than you can for almost any deity from my “deities of the underworld” category.   The fact that this deity has always been entirely a fraud, a bowdlerization of the medieval devil, and a complete invention (created under torture) seemingly has little bearing on the deitiy’s popularity.  Indeed it is a good origin story for a dark god and possibly has helped Baphomet to prominence.

  Bap

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!

This week has featured posts about quolls, the quincunx, quince trees, and qiviut.  For a last q-theme post, I thought about revisiting the lovely quilin, the Chinese unicorn, but I decided that that would be too easy. To round off the week properly we must undertake a grim and harrowing journey of imagination. We need to go back to the dark mansion–once more we must descend to Diyu, Chinese hell.

How do we keep ending up here?

As explicated in my previous post, Diyu was the Chinese afterlife for souls that lived less than exemplary lives (i.e. just about everyone).  The edifice was imagined as a gigantic maze with many different chambers presided over by different competing authorities.  As souls worked (or bribed) their way out of one awful torture chamber they were whisked to a new one until, eventually, their karmic slate was clean and they were ready to be reborn back into the living world.

Qin-Guang-Wang

The ruler of all hell was King Yama also known as Yen-lo-Wang (a god adapted from Yama, the Hindu death god, who merits his own post) many other potentates, gods, and spirits inhabit Diyu.  Yama was once the judge of hell as well as its ruler, but he was found to be too lenient and was replaced as magistrate by Qin-Guang-Wang a much less merciful underworld deity.  Qin-Guang-Wang presided over the first room of Hell where the magic mirror of retribution stood.  This mirror replayed every single part of a person’s life in agonizing detail.  Once Qin-Guang-Wang had watched this pitiless evidence he sent the spirit on to the proper destination.  In all eternity he has only sent a handful of souls over the golden bridge to the perfect happiness of western paradise.  A few more souls are allowed to cross the silver bridge which leads to the seedy and disreputable but still comfortable southern paradise. Everyone else is sent deeper into the dark mansion to report for centuries of disemboweling, flaying, boiling, impaling, roasting, crushing, skinning, and so forth.

Of course everyone–beast, human, god, demon, or even inanimate object—has a backstory in Chinese mythology and the ruthless Qin-Guang-Wang is no exception.  According to myth he was once King Jiang of Qinguang, a warrior and martinet whose inflexible interpretation of rules and personal cruelty were peerless.  The court of heaven noted his talents, promoted him to deity, and now he does what he loves for eternity.


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….

Ferrebeekeeper is celebrating the Halloween season by exploring the greatest family of monsters in all of mythology—the offspring of Echidna! Today’s monster takes us on a dark but fascinating path: those of you with sensitive natures might wish to avert your eyes…Is everyone still here? Excellent! Today we are talking about the ultimate divine torture–which took the form of the terrible Caucasian eagle.

Allow me to backtrack…

The son of Themis, Prometheus, was the titan with the power of prophecy and the curse of conscience. He is one of the most intriguing characters in mythology since his story involves the Greek conception of humankind’s creation and ultimate destiny (all of which probably deserves a longer post elsewhere). To summarize, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it to mankind, setting the latter on a path towards ever greater technical savvy and ultimate godhood. He was severely punished for the crime. Zeus bound Prometheus to a mountain peak on Mount Kaukasos with unbreakable chains and sent a terrible eagle to daily feast upon the titan’s liver. As Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated and he was forced to suffer the hideous torment over and over and over. The eagle, with insatiable appetite and razor claws, was one of Echidna’s offspring. This dreadful scene has frequently been painted by great artists.

Der gefesselte Prometheus (Jacob Jordaens, circa 1640)

Speaking of artists, the liver is a sensitive and frightening subject to some people. Thinking about all the delicate little hepatocytes being exposed to daily wear and tear is enought to make anyone anxious (to say nothing about the massive trauma inflicted by a quasi-divine eagle monster). Carbohydrate metabolism and protein synthesis both require the liver. Fully understanding these processes seems nearly impossible, and just thinking about how many things could go wrong is agonizing. However we must set aside our qualms and push on, for not only is the liver completely and absolutely vital to life (which can be said of other organs), its cellular makeup is unique. Certain hepatocytes are capable of leaving G0 quiescence and re-entering the cell division cycle. Evidence also points to the existence of multipotent progenitor cells in certain parts of the adult liver. This is why the liver is the only internal human organ capable of naturally regenerating itself–as little as twenty-five percent of a liver can regenerate back into a whole organ. The liver is thus a major focus of gene therapy research and stem cell study. Prometheus’ regenerating liver was not unique (though surviving such abdominal trauma certainly would be).

Prometheus Being Rescued by Hercules (Christian Griepenkerl, 1839-1912)

Prometheus was ultimately saved from his terrible fate when Heracles took pity on him. After shooting the eagle from the sky with his great bow, the hero snapped the unbreakable chains and freed the titan. Aeschylus hints that such was the will of Zeus—for Prometheus had divulged a critical secret about Thetis who was fated to…well never mind. That also is a story for another day. Prometheus was free. The Caucasian eagle was dead (though Zeus took care to memorialize it in the heavens as the constellation Aquila). Humankind remains free to keep stumbling forward with fire and a tragic thirst to find how things work. Right now, somewhere in a laboratory filled with axolotls and stem cells, we are fashioning technologies which will provide complete liver regeneration–perhaps even the growth of artificial livers. We must find this out: it is fundamental biotechnical knowledge necessary to truly understand living things. Comprehending and mastering the liver’s ability to regenerate is another step along our road to apotheosis.

The Constellation Aquila

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