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Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Fang Ding (ca. 1100-1000 BC, cast bronze)

Here is a bronze ceremonial vessel called a fang ding from China’s Western Zhou period.  The vessel dates from the eleventh or tenth century BC—so it is probably from Shanxi or Shaanxi (which are the modern provinces located where the Zhou culture began). The ding was used for ceremonial food offerings, but it was also a status object which represented power and authority over the land.  It is covered with an enigmatic pattern known as a taotie, the true nature of which has perplexed and intrigued experts in Chinese art for centuries (or even millennia).  Most scholars believe that the markings are a stylized face—possibly the countenance of strange spirit beings encountered on shamanistic spirit journeys.  According to anthropologists there are extant hunter-gathering cultures which participate in such transcendental rituals—and craft similarly stylized faces (so I’m not making all this up—however anthropologists might be). The Chinese term for the decorative faces (or whatever they are)  is 饕餮 which apparently translates as “glutinous ogre” which seems like a very poetic and apt name for the weird powerful designs.

A different view of the same ding

A different view of the same ding

During the Shang dynasty (which preceded the Zhou period) the analogous ceremonial vessel was a wine container, but the founding king of Zhou was a strict moralist who believed the Shang had declined due to drunkenness and inebriation. Perhaps some of the shamanistic overtones of the bronze vessels vanished as the authorities reinvented dings as a symbol of authority rather than a portal to an altered state!

In our explorations of the concept of “gothic” we have touched on the reemergence of interest in medieval form which affected the romantic movement of the 19th century (here are links about how this happened in literature and architecture).  Aside from a cursory mention of the Pre-Raphaelites however, we have not touched deeply on how gothic aesthetic forms affected painting.

Abtei im Eichwald (Caspar David Friedrich, 1810, oil on canvas)

Enter one of my favorite romantic painters, Caspar David Friedrich (September 5, 1774 – May 7, 1840), a tempestuous German whose tragic early life drew him towards haunting gothic landscapes.  Friedrich painted melancholy scenes of emptiness and ruin: humans inhabiting his landscapes tend to be dwarfed by ancient trees, sharp mountains, and abandoned medieval buildings (or, worse, they are absent altogether).  By showing how trifling people are in the face of time and nature, Friedrich hoped to highlight what is sublime about existence.  He often painted cemeteries and winter landscapes and he has combined these two themes in Abtei im Eichwald (“The Abbey in the Oakland”) which portrays Eldena Abbey, a Cistercian Abbey in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern destroyed by Swedish troops during the Thirty-Years War.  Insect-like mourners struggle through a snowy churchyard dominated by a great gothic arch.  Although the trees are barren, the church is broken, and the land is literally dead, there is an exalted dignity to the great abbey which ruin has somehow enhanced.

Huenengrab im Schnee (Caspar David Friedrich, 1807, oil on canvas)

Friedrich came back to this theme again and again.  Another winter cemetery work Hünengrab im Schnee (“Dolmen in Snow”) lacks even the bleak notes of Christianity which suffuse Abtei im Eichwald.  The canvas shows a prehistoric barrow covered in snow beneath ancient black oak trees.  The leafless trees and the snow on the grave of a millennia-dead Mesolithic king, give an impression of lifeless bleakness, and yet as always with Friedrich (and indeed with romantic aesthetics) the tension in the work draws the eye and leads to philosophical meditation.  Even in the stark frozen tableau there is still a struggle against hopelessness.  Friedrich always found a way to show the triumph of haunting beauty which is transcendent over darkness.

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