31 December 2009
Masks were often used in European folk celebrations to symbolically chase the darkness of Winter and usher in the light of Spring. In ancient Rome the word persona meant mask and related to the ancestral funeral masks that were a part of a family's shrine. These masks would represent ancestors during the transitions of birth, marriage and death. Later masks became a feature of elaborate carnival festivals in Italy and other Roman Catholic countries. Florentine Lorenzo Lippi's (1606 - 1664) painting Woman with a Mask depicts a young woman holding a tragedy mask in one hand and Persephone's pomegranate in the other. Throughout the world masks have been utilized for ritual, performance and amusement. In Japan the stylized Noh mask that appears in classical musical drama evolved from prehistoric myths. The mask allows the wearer to be transformed into an animal, god, demon or the opposite sex. Japanese masks have influenced Western theater, composers and poets. The Mask Grows to Us, a photograph by American Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985) shows a surrealistic vision of how we become the persona we present to the world.
29 December 2009
The month of January is named for the Roman God Janus, the deity of exits and entrances, endings and beginnings. He was known as the custodian of the universe. His unique duality of having one face looking backward and the other gazing forward allowed him to see both the past and the future. The face behind was usually one of an old man as in the early Roman term whereas the face before was that of a young man or woman. Janus was associated with the sun whereas his wife Jana was a Roman moon goddess. The pagan god continued to be depicted in Christian art as in The Breviary of Renaud de Bar, an illuminated manuscript. Created in France in 1303 and 1303 the book contains calendar pages including one for January with a roundel of a feasting Janus. The influence of the god's duplicity can be seen in images from alchemy. A double headed figure is illustrated in The Rosary of Philosophers. Rather than referring to Catholic prayer beads the 16th century German woodcuts describe a garden of wisdom. The hermaphrodite combines two opposites; the king and the queen, the sun and the moon. Just as Janus marries the past with the future.
25 December 2009
Stone Soup is a fable about a European village where weary travelers seek hospitality only to be told there is no food. The strangers respond by making "stone soup". Intrigued, the greedy villagers want to join their visitors. They are enticed into adding cabbage to the pot and whatever else they have hidden away. The Portuguese have a soup they call sopa de pedra or stone soup that is made of cabbage and whatever else that can be found. There is another Portuguese tradition that revolves around soup. At the annual Festa do Espirito Santo in the Azores Islands and Azorean communities around the world sopas is served. A rustic meal made of cabbage, beef, spices, and served over bread with mint sprigs. The festival honors St. Isabel of Portugal (1271-1336) who dedicated her life to the poor and ill and is featured in the painting by Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598 –1664). The queen was married to the Portuguese King Diniz. He did not agree with her generous nature. During one winter Isabel hid loaves of bread from the palace in her robes. When her husband who had forbiddenher to give food to the poor confronted her the loaves were transformed into roses. The queen is still revered through out Portugal and especially in the Azores. Every year Isabel is celebrated at festas where elaborate parades are staged with young girls crowned as queens and a free community banquet is served in large halls. To honor her charitable spirit everyone is fed sopas including weary travelers and the poor.
22 December 2009
Before we feasted on turkey during the holidays the rich supped on peacock. The revelry may have looked like the January banquet depicted in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The 15th century book of hours was begun by the Limbourg Brothers and completed by the "Master of Shadows" along with Jean Colombe. Or imagine if the peacock was the host of a fete as in The Peacock at Home by English poet Catherine Ann Turner Dorset. Her 19th century children's poem describes the proud peacock who is not to be out done by The Butterfly's Ball. Inviting his fellow birds to his home they dined on wasps à la sauce piquant and flies en compôte along with worms and frogs en fritur. Our humble turkey was once as exotic as the peacock when it first appeared in Europe. In 18th century England farmers walked their flocks to market protecting their feet with little booties before they ended as supper on wealthy patrons' tables.
20 December 2009
There can be no divine angels without fallen angels. The most famous messenger to fall from heaven was Lucifer, his name meaning Morning Star. Perhaps the first to fall was the mortal Icarus of Greek mythology. Wearing wings of feathers and wax he flew too close to the sun; his appendages melted and he fell into the sea to his death. Both Lucifer and Icarus are popular motifs in the visual arts. Paul Gustave Doré (1832-1883) illustrated Satan in John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. The aging, bedridden Henri Matisse (1869-1954) chose Icarus as one of the images for his circus themed book Jazz. Some angels elect to fall to earth. In Wim Winders' film Wings of Desire (1987), the angel Damiel gives up his wings and his mortality when he falls in love with a trapeze artist.
17 December 2009
Fireworks have traditionally ushered in the New Year. They are believed to have been invented during the Sung dynasty ( 960-1279 ) when they were used to chase away evil spirits and welcome good fortune. Chinese firework masters created beautiful displays of sound and light. Pyrotechnics were probably brought to Europe by Marco Polo and the Crusaders. During the Renaissance Italians developed the art of fireworks in Florence while Germans in Nuremburg concentrated on the science. They were so popular during the reign of Elisabeth I of England that she created a position for "Fire Master of England". By the 17the century firework displays had become a part of the European entertainment at public gardens. In the 1870's James McNeil Whistler painted the fireworks in the night skies over Cremorne Gardens in London. His Nocturne in Black and Gold- The Falling Rocket was unusual for the time in that it concentrated on atmosphere over detail. What is now regarded as a masterpiece was described at the time by art critic John Ruskin as "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face".
14 December 2009
Robert Burns (1759-1796) is known as the Bard of Scotland and a pioneer of the Romantic Movement. The tenant farmer was one of the last poets to write in the Scots dialect that was disappearing as English became more common in Scotland. His reinterpretation of an old folk song, Auld Lang Syne or "long, long ago" is sung on New Year's Eve around the world. It is about more than the passage of time; it is also about the passing of a way of life. An independent sovereign state before it was incorporated into Great Britain in 1707, the Scotland of Burn's time was a rural economy being altered by industrialization. The poet, influenced by the great bards or markars such as Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) reworked older Scottish themes. Today Auld Lang Syne is sung in Scotland during Hogmanay, a traditional New Year's celebration. During this time the custom of the first-foot is practiced, the first person to cross your threshold on New Year's Day is a bringer of good fortune.
10 December 2009
The Snow Queen of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen lived in a palace formed of snow and wind near the North Pole. She was the queen of snowflakes or "snow bees", traveling through the world wearing a clock of white bringing winter. Her throne sat on a lake of cracked ice that she called "The Mirror of Understanding". The Aurora Borealis lit her hundred glittering rooms. She is depicted in art, dance, film, and literature. Perhaps the queen would have enjoyed the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. The ephemeral structure lasts from December through April and is constructed of snow and ice blocks. Ice Palaces go back to18th century Russia when Empress Anna ordered an ice castle built in St. Petersburg. The dazzling building was outfitted with furniture made of ice and decorated with ice sculptures.
04 December 2009
Before Emperor Constantine (272-337) angels, the heavenly messengers were shown in art without wings. There was an effort in Christian art to separate them from classical images such as Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods who wore a winged cap and winged sandals. The first example of an angel in human form with wings was found in Istanbul dating from the 4th century. Later small winged putti were added to Christian art and became popular as a design motif. Wealthy patrons enjoyed their reference to antiquity. The wings became symbolic of the elevated nature of angels over human beings. Angels of light were couriers of truth to mankind whereas angels of darkness brought falsehoods. Angels, Archangels, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Dominations, Throne, Cherubim and Seraphim are the nine orders given to angels; even heaven has a hierarchy.
02 December 2009
The three wise men that journeyed from the East following a star were originally depicted as Persian priests in Byzantium art. They evolved in Western art to symbolize the three ages of man and later to represent distinct ethnic royalty. Caspar the King of Tarsus, Balthasar the King of Ethiopia and Melchior, King of Arabia exemplified a diversity of age and race. Each brought a rare gift for the Christ child: gold for royalty, frankincense for the soul and myrrh to heal the body. The early Church used this magical image to teach and entertain an illiterate public. The myth of the magi lives on in Spain and Portugal where the three wise men bring gifts to children who leave carrots and hay out to lure them and their horses.