Adoration of the Magi

Albrecht Durer   Oil on Wood  1504

The story of the Magi, the Three Kings, the Wise men, however you know them, it’s one of my favorite Biblical stories.  I love the mystery of who they were, where they were coming from, and where they went after they saw baby Jesus.  Matthew says “they returned to their country by another route” in order to avoid King Herod.  But where was “their country?”

Most Western Protestants and Catholics follow the tradition of three Magi, although some traditions say there were up to 12.  Traditionally, there are three men, Melchior of Persia, Casper of India, China, or “the Orient”, and Balthazar the African Wiseman, possibly from Ethiopia.  They are known by different names and countries in different traditions.

I’ve always had this nagging question no one seems to have a good answer for.  What would three men of such different ages (traditionally 20, 40, and 60) from incredibly different backgrounds be traveling together for?  Some traditions even suggest Balthazar was Muslim.

I think it seems more likely that all three were Zoroastrian.  This would probably explain not only why the three were traveling together, but also the use of the term “magi.”  Although it was also associated with magicians, alchemists, and astrologers, it was also commonly used to describe followers of Zoroaster.  (A people I hope to expand on in a later blog.)

The Magi brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which are another mystery.  Who gives a baby incense and embalming oil?  Of course, the symbolism is heavy in this story.  Gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh for death and the subsequent Resurrection.

Still, what mother wants to deal with that?  Oh great, let me lug this stuff around while I ride a donkey.  You could have just paid for a room at the inn so we weren’t still hanging out in this stable 12 days later.  Of course, I may be a bit more practical than one that has just experienced a virgin birth and is by now quite accustomed to visits by angels.  A surprise visit in your recovery stable from some random foreign dignitaries must have seemed quite in the ordinary.

I’ve pasted the story from Matthew 2 below.

Albrecht Durer is one of my favorite artists, and is by far my favorite printmaker.  Since this blog is already long, I’ll save his story for another time.  I’m sure I’ll post a block print of his sometime soon.

I do want to mention the person that commissioned this painting.  Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, commissioned the painting in 1504 for the church in Wittenberg.  You may think he or the church seem vaguely familiar.  He was an early ally of Martin Luther. The church at Wittenberg is the same church where Luther nailed the 95 theses, prompting the Protestant Reformation.  Frederick actually hid Martin Luther at Wartburg Castle to avoid arrest.

You can read a blog I wrote about another piece involving a dream Frederick III had about Martin Luther here.  Frederick III’s Dream

At first glance at this painting you may just see three Magi, but you’ll notice there are actually four.  Kneeling in front of the baby is Melchior, the oldest, traditionally aged 60, and representing Persia.  He presents gold.  Over his shoulder is Balthazar, representing Africa or Arabia.  He’s the youngest and is presenting the gift of myrrh.

And although it seems obvious that person next to him must be Caspar, I disagree.  Caspar is the Magi from India, or some even say China.  To me, the figure on the far right with his hand in his bag is more likely the third of the traditional Wise men.  His complexion, facial features, and attire show this man represents the East.

Then who is the long-haired man in the middle?  Albrecht Durer himself.  The artist created several self portraits, and there are just too many similarities to ignore.

Now most scholars look at this painting and say the three men in the center are the Magi, including the obvious self-portrait.  The fourth man is always considered a servant.  But why would there be only a servant for Caspar and not the others?   And why is he presented in such an “ethnic” way?  No, I’m sticking to my claim that Durer represents someone else, possibly one of the 12 Magi, or maybe just himself.  There are so many different stories about these men, and practically every nation claims one of them represents their culture.  Some even believe one was from Tuscany.  I think he’s representing Europe.

I love the wonderful architecture in this painting.  There are arches connected to what seems to be a crumbling wall.  I especially like the roof over the cow and donkey that is attached to what seems to be part of an arch.  Notice that little detail near the top that looks like it’s some sort of pin keeping the curved  block attached.

And the animals, although we can’t see much of them, are marvelous.  Look at the expression on that donkey.  The fur on the face of the cow is so rich and varied.  I just want to reach in and pat him on the nose.

And of course, we can’t leave out my favorite part, the stag beetle.  On first glance, my thought was whoa, what happened to the proportions?  Then I remembered seeing another wonderful painting of Durer’s, one of this same beetle.  I can’t seem to come up with a good reason for this, but for some reason Christ was sometimes symbolized as a beetle during the 16th century.  Whatever the reason, it makes for an interesting and visually appealing part of the painting.

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You can read a very insightful essay about this piece that I enjoyed here: Durer Magi

If you’re anything like me, the story of the Magi will continue to be an intriguing  story and mystery for years to come.  I hope you look up other versions of the story you know.

Happy Epiphany!

Here is the Biblical account of the story of the Magi as found in Matthew 2.  It is the only one of the Gospels to include the story:

The Magi Visit the Messiah

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’[b]

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

 

Judith Slaying Holofernes

Artemisia Gentileschi  Oil on Canvas  1620

I have to admit, until recently, I had no idea the story of Judith slaying Holofernes had anything to do with Hanukkah.  I’m awfully glad that there is a connection, because I’ve been wondering how I was going to work this painting into my calendar.  It’s really not clear if it has any actual relation to Hanukkah at all, but it seems that in some cultures, the story of Judith (or Yehudit) is told on Hanukkah as an example of Jewish faith and courage overcoming a larger force.

The story of Judith can be found in the Apocrypha, as she didn’t make the cut in either Jewish texts or the Protestant Old Testament.  The Book of Judith is considered canon by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  It’s easy to jump to the “it was excluded because it’s about a female hero” reasoning, but it’s more likely because it is incredibly historically inaccurate (even for the first or second century BCE), and is generally considered a parable or possibly even the first historical fiction.  (She says Nebuchadnezzar is the King of Assyria, but he was actually Babylonian.)  Regardless, it’s a wonderful piece of literature and a great heroine story.

You should definitely take the time to read the story of Judith yourself, but here is the super abridged version.

Judith was a widow living in the Israelite town of Bethulia.  Holofernes and his army of Assyrians besieged the town by cutting off the mountain pass and access to water.  In thirty four days the town ran out of water.

The townspeople gathered and tried to persuade the town elder, Uzziah, to surrender.  Surely they would all die if not.  A devout man, Uzziah persuades the townspeople to have faith for five more days,  their God would provide.

When Judith heard the Uzziah put a timeline on her God to rescue them, she was appalled.  In chapter 8:12 she says, ” 12 What right do you have to put God to the test as you have done today? Who are you to put yourselves in God’s place in dealing with human affairs? 13 It is the Lord Almighty that you are putting to the test! Will you never learn?” She actually tears into the leaders with a very lengthy speech, but you get the idea.

So Judith takes matters into her own hands.  She vows that before the five days have passed, the Lord will use her to rescue her people.  One little thing–no questions asked.  Uzziah agrees.

She prays (again, quite lengthy).  She says in chapter 9:9 “I am only a widow, but give me the strength to carry out my plan. 10 Use my deceitful words to strike them all dead, master and slave alike. Let a woman’s strength break their pride.”

Judith had been in mourning for her husband for three years and four months.  She wore ony a sackcloth.  Although she was very beautiful, she did not adorn herself.  That is, of course, until the night she went to the camp of Holofernes.  You can guess what happens next.

She put on her most beautiful clothing and jewelry, adorned herself with ribbons in her hair.  Although she had fasted while in mourning, she and her slave now carried wine, roasted barley, dried figs and delicious bread.  She convinced the guards, not only with her beauty, but with her wit and wisdom, that she was indeed Hebrew, but was running away because their God had abandoned them.  Surely they would all perish any day now.

Over the course of the next four days, Judith beguiled not only Holofernes, but his guards and servants as well.  They were not guarded and could do as they wished.  All the while, Judith was careful to keep with her faith, praying and eating only what her slave prepared for her.

So of course, the time came for action.  It’s an old story.  Woman meets man.  Man lusts for woman.  Woman plays along.  Man gets drunk.  Woman slices off man’s head and saves her city from certain destruction.  Again, the actual Book of Judith is probably where you should read the story.  It really is a great story of faith, conviction, bravery, and well, gore.

Artemisia Gentileschi has an equally riveting story.  The daughter of an artist in early 17th century, it was soon apparent her talent outshined that of her father, who himself was a well-respected painter and contemporary of Caravaggio.  Although not unheard of, it was rare for a female artist to succeed.  Her father recognized her great talent and did what he could to help in her success.

When she surpassed him in skill, he arranged for an apprenticeship with Agostino Tassi, another well-respected artist.  However, Tassi raped the 17-year-old Artemisia,  at which time the girl yelled out for her female chaperone, the only adult female figure in her life.  The woman ignored her cries, and many believed had even colluded with Tassi before the rape.

What followed was a very long, drawn out, gruelling  seven month trial when Tassi refused to marry Artemisia after taking her virginity.  Apparently, the gynecological examination she was forced to endure wasn’t proof enough.   She was subjected to torture, actual, literal torture of thumbscrews to “verify” her testimony.  At the time, there was only a case if the victim was a virgin.

Tassi was sentenced to one year in prison.  He never served any time.  Many people look at her paintings and see the anger, the bitterness, the hurt, the betrayal.  But what I mostly see in this painting is resolve.  The expression of Judith’s face isn’t menacing, it’s determined.  In her mind, he’s getting exactly what he deserves.

Artemisia Gentileschi actually did two versions of this painting.  This is the second, and I believe the superior of the two, now found in the Uffizi.  Although both have the amazing Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro, she just seems to have worked it out a bit more in the later version.  The proportions are better, the shadows are deeper, and the blood, oh, the blood.  Notice in the second painting the blood spraying from Holofernes’ neck.  Yeah, I’m betting she also believed he was getting what he deserved.

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Left-1611  Right 1620

In addition to these two paintings of Judith, she also painted the glorious Judith and Maidservant in 1613.  And truly, this is my favorite of all Judith paintings by any artist.  Although it doesn’t show the act of slicing his neck, it shows something better–Judith’s wisdom.

Most paintings of this moment show Judith or her servant holding the head by its hair, ala David and Goliath.  However, that’s not how it happens in the story.  Although Judith had the run of the camp, I don’t think she could have made it back to town swinging the head of the leader of the army around.

That’s why her plan was so genius.  The guards were used to her slave carrying a basket, as Judith would only eat her food.  No one even noticed when they strolled out of camp with a little something extra.

Not your typical Hanukkah story, I know.  But I hope you’ll enjoy learning more about Judith and Artemisia Gentileschi on your own.  Maybe you can add (possibly a less gory version) to your Hanukkah tradition.  Happy Hanukkah!

393px-gentileschi_judith1

 

 

 

 

 

Be Be

Paul Gauguin  Oil on Canvas  1896

I was having a hard time deciding which of the hundreds of thousands of Nativity paintings I should share for Christmas.  Then I remembered this very interesting and unusual painting by Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin during his second stay in Tahiti.  I thought I would share it as it is not very well-known and is quite an unusual take on the very familiar scene.

Honestly, I’m not a big fan of Gauguin.  I prefer the Renaissance masters for religious images like the Nativity, the Annunciation, the Pieta.  But it’s the history, the story behind the story that interests me with Gauguin.  Like Picasso, it’s not the aestheticism I enjoy, it’s the reason he painted what he did.  (To read my blog on Picasso’s Guernica,  click here Guernica).

Two Decembers ago, Kip and I attended a lecture at the St. Louis Art Museum about Gauguin’s time in Tahiti and its influence on his work, which was quite interesting. Although he originally left his wife and kids to go to Tahiti to get inspired and get rich, it seems that he spent a great deal of his time conquering very young teenage girls.  He returned to Paris to a relatively positive reception to his new work, but it wasn’t long before he returned to Tahiti to take up residence (without his wife and children).

The first time he went to Tahiti was only about two years after his short-lived stay at The Yellow House with Vincent Van Gogh, which ended with Van Gogh cutting off his own ear.  Although their relationship was strained to say the least, they continued corresponding until Van Gogh’s suicide about six months later.  Although it doesn’t seem that Gauguin used the loss of his contemporary as a reason behind the first trip, I can certainly understand how it could have been.

Van Gogh desperately wanted Gauguin to be the first of his friends to join him at The Yellow House to start an artist colony.  When Gauguin discovered he couldn’t tolerate living in Arles with a genius that happened to also be unbearable to live with, he had to go.  Van Gogh never recovered.  Gauguin had to feel some regret, some remorse, and to some degree, like the cause of Van Gogh’s quick decline and death.  A remote island full of beautiful young girls seems like a logical place to go.

In 1895 Gauguin returned to Tahiti to live with his very young Tahitian wife, Pau’ura, who was also his most widely used model for many of his nudes.  It was during this period in 1896 when he painted Be Be and Nativity.   Pau’ura was most likely the model for Mary in Nativity, seen below.

nativity

Nativity   Paul Gauguin Oil on Canvas  1896

It’s wildly annoying to me that Be Be and Nativity are not in the same museum, as they are obviously meant to be viewed together.  Painted in the same year, both paintings show the same scene from different angles.  Nativity shows a Tahitian Mary on a very yellow bed, with animals around her.  The color scheme is so typical of Gauguin, bright, bright yellow with rich browns.

But Be Be is the painting I enjoy the most.  At first glance one might think it’s just a painting of a Tahitian woman holding a baby.  Then you notice the angel to her right, and the halo encircling the baby’s head.  The same livestock are in front of her as in Nativity.  And then you notice at the very top of the painting Mary herself, also with a glow about her.  Then it seems obvious that this is indeed, the same location, the same baby, the same stable.

So who is this woman?  Some believe she is Pau’ura.  Honestly, I don’t buy that.  She may have been the model, but I have serious doubts that a playboy like Gauguin was so infatuated with his young wife he made her the center of a religious painting, particularly because he had multiple young girls in his bed.

I tend to believe she is a representative of humankind in general.  Mary is long ago, in the background.  Jesus is being held by the native girl front and center.  She is us.  She is every Christian that holds Jesus as the center of their religion.  She is just a regular, normal girl, with Christ at the center of all things.

Today Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus.  They continue to hold the Christ child lovingly, just as the young Tahitian girl does for Gauguin.  Merry Christmas!

 

 

The Slave Ship

J.M.W. Turner  Oil Painting  1840

On November 29, 1781 and the days following, 133 Africans were jettisoned from the slave ship Zong in attempt to lighten the cargo load.  Men, women, and children, some of which were still shackled, were dumped into the Caribbean.   They were alive.

Captain Luke Collingwood became ill, along with a number of crew and slaves.  His crew made a series of navigational errors, and neglected to properly resupply the potable water. In addition, they were carrying more than twice the number of slaves typical for that size ship.

In the 18th century, Africans were nothing but cargo.  The “cargo” was sick and they were low on water.  If they died of natural causes the insurance would not cover their losses.  If they made it to land but were too ill to sell, it would also be a loss for the ship owners.

Money spoke louder than humanity, which isn’t overly surprising as it was a slave ship.  They found a loophole to exploit in the insurance policy.  A loophole that was nothing short of a massacre.

They used the law of General Average, a maritime law stating that all parties share any losses resulting from  a voluntary sacrifice of part of the ship or cargo to save the whole in an emergency.  They were low on water.  The crew later claimed the rest of the cargo couldn’t be maintained unless some were sacrificed.  For 133 people, this human sacrifice was not voluntary.  Ten others saw their sacrifice and jumped overboard in what was later described as an act of defiance.

A number of trials followed after the arrival of the Zong in Jamaica.  The insurance company wouldn’t pay, and the proceedings dragged on for years.  One important point to note, the insurance company actually stated that the use of General Average did not apply as it could never justify the killing of innocent people, slaves or not.  They went on to say that the actions of the crew were nothing short of murder.

Whether the legal team of the insurance company was just looking for a way to not pay, no one can be sure.  However, historians do believe they were swayed by Granville Sharp, an abolitionist.  The story of the Zong Massacre, although not widely reported at the time, became a horrific example of the treatment slaves faced and influenced the abolitionist movement for years to come.

Slavery was abolished in England in 1833.  Not until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 were slaves freed in the United States.

JMW Turner is one of Britain’s most beloved and highly treasured artists.  His Romanticism style landscapes gained as much popularity as the historic paintings of his time.  His later works, The Slave Ship included, are often seen as the precursors to Impressionism.

I’m such a fan of Turner’s earlier Romantic works, that when I first saw this piece I had the same reaction that many of his contemporaries had.  What is this?  Where are the beautiful masts with the wind blowing them like his other sea paintings?  Where are the rolling clouds and delicately detailed waves?

Maybe he had lost it.  People talked that he was loosing his eyesight, his patience, his mind.  But then I learned the story of the Zong.   Turner painted The Slave Ship after reading The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade by Thomas Clarkson.  It was painted for  a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society, of which Turner was a member.  He may have hoped Prince Albert would see it and would be inspired to enforce tougher anti-slavery laws.

This painting is difficult for me.  I like things orderly, deliberate, beautiful.  This is anything but.  It’s dark and furious, ominous.  You can see the ship in the background, but the light across the bow almost looks like fog.  But what you can see in the forground of the painting are limbs reaching from the water, some still shackled.  It even appears that there are a group of fish and birds attacking the flailing bodies.

As with so many other paintings, it’s the history that makes this painting beautiful to me, not the color, the technique, the brushstrokes.  The passion Turner felt, the horror, the sense that the story needed to be told.  And although it’s not the beautiful Turner style I would have chosen, it did its job.  It caught my attention.  It inspired me to learn and to share the story with you.

 

The Thankful Poor

Henry Ossawa Tanner  Oil Painting  1894

Over the years, I’ve often filled my social media with rants about Thanksgiving and its misrepresentation of a joyful time of Pilgrims and Native Americans happily eating turkey and beautifully colored corn and pumpkin pie.  I would sometimes include paintings or articles about the persecution of Native peoples.  My favorite was to include statistics about the deaths in the turbulent times following (and preceding) the first Thanksgiving.

Sometimes I would point out that if there hadn’t been a smallpox outbreak amongst the Pokanoket brought to them via the Europeans, their leader, Oasamequin, wouldn’t have even had to make the alliance with the Pilgrims at all.  In reality, he could have let them starve to death.  All pretty gloomy stuff.

When Kip died in November of last year, I really thought about what he always said when I would post that sort of thing.  He would point out how although it may be true, I could focus on something positive in the world, instead of always something negative, even if I thought I was “shedding light” on some of America’s darkest times.

So last Thanksgiving I broke with tradition.  I instead posted a painting by Camille Pissaro entitled The Crystal Palace.  I wanted to “shed light” on a successful refugee who became the father of Impressionism.  You can read what I wrote last year here:  The Crystal Palace.  So in an attempt to keep with the positivity, I have chosen the painting The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner to share with you today.

Henry Ossawa Tanner is generally considered a realist painter, although I find that is a bit of a misnomer.  He did have highly realistic paintings, but he had others that were Impressionistic.  He was a painter of portraits, landscapes, Biblical scenes, and is even sometimes categorized as a Mystic painter.  He really has one of the most diverse libraries of work of any painter I’m aware of.  In this particular work, you can plainly seen the influence of his teacher, the great Realist Thomas Eakins.

Henry’s father was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  His mother was born a slave and escaped via the Underground Railroad.  He grew up in Pittsburgh and became the first and most successful African-American student accepted into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Although he was successful in the States, he didn’t find true freedom until he went to Europe.  In Paris, he could live without the racism he endured during Reconstruction in a Southern leaning city.  He was free to marry his Swedish-American opera singer bride.

In Europe he wasn’t a successful “colored” artist.  There he was a highly acclaimed American artist.  The color of his skin didn’t define his artwork, his talent did.  He became the first African-American in history to have his works shown in a Paris Salon.

Henry O. Tanner went on to work for the Red Cross Public Information Department during World War I where he painted the front lines.  In 1923 he became a knight of the Legion of Honor for his service.

The Thankful Poor was painted on a visit back to the States in 1894.  This was done shortly after his award-winning The Banjo Lesson was met with acclaim all over Europe.  I like to believe both paintings share the same subjects, although I can’t find any sources to back up that theory.  However, the older man and child appear to be in the same room in both paintings.

This painting really expresses to me what Thanksgiving is actually about.  The man and child are bowing their heads to give thanks over their small, but sufficient meal.  The blended color of the walls is echoed in the table covering, giving a wonderfully muted yet colorful backdrop.  It really allows the folds in the man’s shirt and the curls on the boy’s head to really pop.

The grandfather figure’s face is in shadow, so you can’t see his features well.  The boy, conversely, is bathed in light.  The glow on the boy’s face from the light streaming through the window is nearly angelic.  To me, this seems like a metaphor for their lives.  The man has come through dark times, the boy has a bright future.

I imagine the man thanking God for his ability to have survived through his hardships, while asking for protection over his young grandson.  The boy maybe thanking God for having his grandfather there to protect him and support him and provide him with the meal.  That’s the beauty of art, it’s up to you to decide what it means.

However you spend this Thanksgiving, take a minute to be thankful for those around you.  Remember not only the parts of their lives they share with you, but those parts without you.  Be grateful for everything they have gone through to get to where they are today, and be hopeful for their future.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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The Banjo Lesson, 1893

 

 

Frederick III’s Dream

Anonymous  Woodblock  1617

On October 30, 1517, Elector Frederick III had a strange and elaborate dream.  The next day, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  The Reformation had begun.

One hundred years later, this broadside was printed in Leipzig to mark the anniversary.  It shows how Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, correctly foretold of Martin Luther’s centric role in the Reformation.  By posting the 95 theses, Luther challenged the Catholic Church, which would lead to the split between Catholics and Protestants still followed today.

There is so much happening in this letterpress print.  On the right side near the top you see a seated Martin Luther writing in a book.  He’s receiving Divine inspiration from above.

My favorite part is actually the man at the bottom picking up what looks to be parts of Luther’s pen that have sprouted off.  I think it’s such a great representation of how word of the 95 theses spread.  Copy after copy after were made and distributed.  This was the 16th century version of “going viral.”

Happy Reformation Day!

Here is a description of Frederick’s dream found at www.reformation.org:

On the morning of the 31st October, 1517, the elector said to Duke John,

“Brother, I must tell you a dream which I had last night, and the meaning of which I should like much to know. It is so deeply impressed on my mind, that I will never forget it, were I to live a thousand years. For I dreamed it thrice, and each time with new circumstances.”

Duke John: “Is it a good or a bad dream?”

The Elector: “I know not; God knows.”

Duke John: “Don’t be uneasy at it; but be so good as tell it to me.”

The Elector: “Having gone to bed last night, fatigued and out of spirits, I fell asleep shortly after my prayer, and slept calmly for about two hours and a half; I then awoke, and continued awake to midnight, all sorts of thoughts passing through my mind. Among other things, I thought how I was to observe the Feast of All Saints. I prayed for the poor souls in purgatory; and supplicated God to guide me, my counsels, and my people according to truth. I again fell asleep, and then dreamed that Almighty God sent me a monk, who was a true son of the Apostle Paul. All the saints accompanied him by order of God, in order to bear testimony before me, and to declare that he did not come to contrive any plot, but that all that he did was according to the will of God. They asked me to have the goodness graciously to permit him to write something on the door of the church of the Castle of Wittenberg. This I granted through my chancellor. Thereupon the monk went to the church, and began to write in such large characters that I could read the writing at Schweinitz. The pen which he used was so large that its end reached as far as Rome, where it pierced the ears of a lion that was crouching there, and caused the triple crown upon the head of the Pope to shake. All the cardinals and princes, running hastily up, tried to prevent it from falling. You and I, brother, wished also to assist, and I stretched out my arm; — but at this moment I awoke, with my arm in the air, quite amazed, and very much enraged at the monk for not managing his pen better. I recollected myself a little; it was only a dream.

“I was still half asleep, and once more closed my eyes. The dream returned. The lion, still annoyed by the pen, began to roar with all his might, so much so that the whole city of Rome, and all the States of the Holy Empire, ran to see what the matter was. The Pope requested them to oppose this monk, and applied particularly to me, on account of his being in my country. I again awoke, repeated the Lord’s prayer, entreated God to preserve his Holiness, and once more fell asleep.”

“Then I dreamed that all the princes of the Empire, and we among them, hastened to Rome, and strove, one after another, to break the pen; but the more we tried the stiffer it became, sounding as if it had been made of iron. We at length desisted. I then asked the monk (for I was sometimes at Rome, and sometimes at Wittenberg) where he got this pen, and why it was so strong. ‘The pen,’ replied he, ‘belonged to an old goose of Bohemia, a hundred years old. I got it from one of my old schoolmasters. As to its strength, it is owing to the impossibility of depriving it of its pith or marrow; and I am quite astonished at it myself.’ Suddenly I heard a loud noise — a large number of other pens had sprung out of the long pen of the monk. I awoke a third time: it was daylight.”

Duke John: “Chancellor, what is your opinion? Would we had a Joseph, or a Daniel, enlightened by God!”

Chancellor: “Your highness knows the common proverb, that the dreams of young girls, learned men, and great lords have usually some hidden meaning. The meaning of this dream, however, we shall not be able to know for some time — not till the things to which it relates have taken place. Wherefore, leave the accomplishment to God, and place it fully in his hand.”

Duke John: “I am of your opinion, Chancellor; ‘tis not fit for us to annoy ourselves in attempting to discover the meaning. God will overrule all for his glory.”

Elector: “May our faithful God do so; yet I shall never forget, this dream. I have, indeed, thought of an interpretation, but I keep it to myself. Time, perhaps, will show if I have been a good diviner.”

The Magic Circle

John William Waterhouse  1886  Oil Painting

Long before there was Halloween, there was Samhain (pronounced sow-in), celebrated by the ancient Celts.  It was celebrated between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, falling on October 31.  As one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, it was one of the most important days of the year.

This day involved all the normal rituals you would assume for a time of the year when the days were getting shorter and colder.  Animals were brought in from pastures and slaughtered for the winter.  Bonfires would be extinguished an relit to symbolize cleansing needed before the long winter.

But most importantly, the evening of Samhain was a threshold between this world and the Celtic Otherworld.  This means spirits or other magical creatures like fairies would cross over to this world.  The Celts believed that if they left offerings of food and drink, the spirits would cross over to bless them and protect them over the long winter months.

In addition to spirits, it was also believed that the dead would return during Samhain.  The living would invite the dead to their feasts and leave their places open for them.  Not unlike Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, the dead were honored and revered, welcomed and remembered.  Modern Pagans continue to celebrate to this day.

John William Waterhouse was an English Pre-Raphaelite most known for his paintings of Greek mythology and Camelot.  Being nearly a generation younger than the original Brotherhood, he is generally considered the last of the great Pre-Raphaelites, working well into the 20th century.   He managed to bridge classicism, Pre-Raphaelitism, and Impressionism, and also happens to be one of my favorite artists.

I struggled to find the right painting for Samhain.  Although I was originally looking for something more specifically Celtic, I just love Waterhouse and thought it was a good opportunity to feature him.  This is one of his earlier works.

Practically every single one of his paintings feature a lone female, and this is no exception. It’s implied that she is some sort of witch, as she draws the circle around herself and her cauldron.  However, unlike most paintings featuring a witch, cauldron, frog, and raven, she is young and lovely.  There are flowers in her belt and her dress features what appears to be Greek warriors.  It’s an odd choice when you think about it, but somehow it works perfectly.

My favorite part of this painting is the steam rising from the cauldron.  It seems like there is just a hint of forms, although no matter how hard I look I can’t quite make out something specific.  I’ve always imagined it as the spirits crossing over, not quite formed.

The look on her face, the concentration, the passion.  It’s like she sees something we can’t.  Maybe it is the soul of a lost beloved, crossing over for one night.  I envy her.

I wish you all a blessed Samhain.  May you prepare for the coming winter in any and all ways you see fit.  Maybe set an extra spot at the table tonight, just in case.