The Suspension Bridge between the Provinces of Hida and Etchu

Katushika Hokusai  Nishiki-e  1830

Today, January 21, 2017, would have been Kip’s 44th birthday.  If you didn’t know him or me, you can read a little about him here.  Who is reboArts?  His artwork of choice was Japanese prints, particularly Hokusai and Hiroshige.  So this post is in honor of him today.

Nishiki-e is a form of blockprinting originally developed in Japan in the late 18th century.  The technique involves carving separate blocks for each individual color.   Printed calendars became popular during this time, and colored prints were highly sought after.

Hokusai is one of the most popular Japanese artists of all time, most well-known for his 36 Views of Mount Fuji, specifically the The Great Wave.  To call him prolific would be a bit of an understatement.  It’s believed he produced more than 30,000 works, including paintings, drawings, and woodblock prints.  This print comes from a series of prints of famous bridges.

I believe many can relate to this traveler.  The bridge over the great chasm of life is long and difficult.  The burdens one carries are heavy and make your journey sometimes nearly unbearable.  The bridge bends and bows under the weight.  If you take a misstep, you fall so far.  Look, those are the tops of trees in the foreground.  There is always some one or something behind you, making the crossing harder,  never letting you rest.

But just in your view is the end of it all.  There is a serene bliss, if you can just get there.  If you’re able to look up, you can see the grazing deer and the birds flying.  You just have to hang in there, and do the best you can.

 

 

 

 

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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

 

 

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.

 

 

Leif Erikson Discovers America

Hans Dahl  Oil  Late 1800s

On October 9 we celebrate the journey of Leif Erikson from Greenland to North America, the first European to do so, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.  Actually, no we don’t.  Generally, Americans have no idea there even is a Leif Erikson Day, even though it has been a US holiday since 1964 (in Illinois since 1956).  And if you do know, you probably don’t know that date, although you may know “somewhere around Columbus Day.”

So why is it October 9?  That’s the date the Restauration arrived in New York in 1825.  It held the first emigrants from Norway to the US.  No, it holds no significance to Leif Erikson himself.

Leif Erikson is the son of Erik the Red (hence the “Erik-son” name).  His father settled Greenland after being exiled from Iceland.  Erik the Red took after his father, who settled Iceland after being exiled from Norway.  So you could say that Leif had exploration in his blood.  Luckily for him, he wasn’t exiled, just looking for adventure.

Around 1000 CE Leif Erikson set off from Greenland in search of land first seen by Norse explorer Bjarni Herjolfsson.  Although “explorer” is a bit of a stretch for a title.  Herjolfsson was sailing for Greenland and was blown off course.  He saw other land (probably Labrador and/or Newfoundland), but was in a hurry to get to Greenland, so didn’t even step ashore.  But his story inspired Leif, who a few years later went to check it out for himself.

According to the Norse Sagas, Leif went to Norway and became a companion to King Olaf.  Here he was converted to Christianity.  The king sent him out convert the people of Greenland and beyond to Christianity as well.

So Leif set out for a new world.  He landed first at a place he named Flat Rock Land or Slab Land, then went to a place he named Forest Land.  I guess he thought since his dad had named Greenland, those were exciting names.   But finally he came to Vinland (or Vineland) a place full of salmon and grapes.  The story goes that he and his crew stayed there for the winter and then returned to Greenland with a second boat full of grapes.

Notice that story is pretty uneventful.  Kicked around Canada a bit, did some fishing and wine making, built some huts, went home.  No slaughter of First Nations people.  No land grabbing or gold mining or spice stealing.  His brother and sister had different experiences when they returned, but that’s why they don’t have their own days.  Leif was the explorer, they were the exploiters.  He never made a return trip.

This oil painting is by Norwegian Romantic painter Hans Dahl, best know for his sweeping Norwegian landscapes, most often with a wind-swept figure facing away from the viewer.  In the late 19th century he was part of the Düsseldorf School, a group of highly talented and influential artists.  Unfortunately for him, by that time Romanticism had fallen out of favor for Modernism and his art was considered old-fashioned and not en vogue.

This painting, Leif Erikson Discovers America, is a bit of a break from Hans Dahl’s other works.  Although it does show hills in the distance and the wonderful breaking waves of the ocean, the focal point is on the hero and his crew.  The figures are arranged so your eye travels right down the line to the small bodies at the bottom and then out to the boat where the rest of the crew waits, then out to the water.

It really gives you the sense that he is the most important.  Everything else seems small behind him, even the large, blue sea.  He looks so grand, so majestic, like he derseves to have a national holiday named after him.

Happy Leif Erikson Day!

For more reading and cool paintings of Leif Erikson, check out this cool blog.  Leif Erikson

 

 

Starbase 11

Albert Whitlock  1966  Matte Painting

I want to preface this blog by saying I grew up an EXTREME Star Wars fan.  Thanks to my older brother, I was led to believe that it was an absolute certainty in this world that one could NOT be a Star Wars fan AND a Star Trek fan.  This was apparently some sort of unwritten rule that I grew up following.  And let’s face it, no way would I give up my hero Princess Leia, Ewoks, Bossk, and the amazingly suave Lando for a pointy eared baby doctor (the name was confusing to me) and that sleazy guy that always kissed people, especially green girls.

Although Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was airing when I was young, I didn’t really know anything about it.  I don’t know if this was because we didn’t have cable, or if it was because I was the younger of two kids, thus never having access to the viewing schedule.  Even if I had a chance, I was brainwashed into the Star Wars only rule.  I caught an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) here or there on syndication, thus my knowledge of the philandering captain that liked kissing aliens.

It wasn’t until I met Kip that I learned that a person can indeed love both franchises.  And man, did he ever.  The number of hours we spent watching TNG is really beyond comprehension.  We probably could have done something really great for humanity during those hours, but I doubt we would have.

And we weren’t just casual viewers.  As much as Star Wars shaped my childhood, TNG shaped me as an adult.  I’m currently typing on Geordi.  Kip’s Surface was named Barclay.  My phone is Reginod (because he is smart.  He looks for things.)  My previous phone was Data, because it was an Android.

It’s hard to explain and sounds really rather silly when I try to, but to me, Star Trek isn’t just a tv show or a movie or a zillion dollar franchise.  It’s a philosophy.  It’s a way of life.  No, I’m not a Trekker (or a Trekkie as some uninformed people prefer to say.)  I don’t dress in costume (or cosplay as the kids say these days) and go to conventions.  It’s not a way of life in the sense that I pretend I’m a space captain.  (Although I’ve been known to do that).  It’s the way I go about my normal, every day life.

Every single episode of every iteration of Star Trek presents a problem.  Mostly, these are giant, end of a civilization/start a war/inadvertently create a religion/save a planet sort of situations.  There are no small problems on Star Trek (unless you count Wesley Crusher’s love life.)  Every decision impacts an entire crew/civilization/race/planet.  Every one.  They left the run-of-the-mill after school special problems to the “very special” episodes of sitcoms.

Naturally, these are large casts and they all need story lines, so inevitably there are some smaller problems thrown in too, but that’s mostly to keep everything interesting and not so heavy.  I mean, it would have been a shame to not have the beautiful Nurse Chapel pining for Spock, the most unattainable person on the ship.  He, however, would most likely called the storyline illogical.

These stories are not just space adventures.  They call into question not only what is right or wrong, but also who decides the definition of right or wrong.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe the Federation and the Prime Directive are right.

In my favorite episode ever of any Star Trek, “Pen Pals,” Data befriends a young girl via radio on a planet that is dying.   What starts as an innocent “Is anybody out there” from Sarjenka turns into a philosophical discussion of the Prime Directive and the difference between  “seeking out new live and new civilizations” and interfering with the natural order of things.

That is, until her small voice pleads for Data to save her.  In what I believe to be the most powerful line of Star Trek dialogue ever delivered, Captain Picard quietly says, “Your whisper from the dark has now become a plea.  We cannot turn our backs.”

I can’t count the times I have been in some sort of (non-world ending) situation when I’ve wondered, “what would Captain Picard do?”  I always say the same thing, “the right thing.”  And although I don’t always agree with Captain Kirk’s decisions (and would never hold his decision-making skills to the same high standards I hold Captain Picard’s) I can at least know that I’ll have something to think about.

That’s the beauty of Star Trek.  It opens your eyes and your minds and your hearts to not just new worlds, but new points of view.  It makes you question your own views.  It challenges you to be more open-minded, even if it’s not popular.  Plainly, Star Trek makes me a better person.

This painting is from my favorite episode of TOS, “The Menagerie.”  In an equalling life-questioning scenario, Spock chooses to face court-martial and even declares mutiny in order to bring comfort to Captain Pike.  This matte painting was used in this two-part episode to represent Starbase 11.

Al Whitlock was a subcontracted matte painter that painted several pieces for Star Trek.  Generally, he had less than a week to complete them, including this one.  He was truly one of the greatest matte painters ever, and has an incredible portfolio of work spanning all genres.  Some of my favorite work of his is from Dracula.  You can see a some of his work here:  Whitlock Scrapbook

If you’ve ever been with me to a movie you know I’m a credits watcher (it’s about respect!), but I always like to see how many (if any) matte painters work on a film.  It is truly a dying art that never gained the appreciation it truly deserved.  Look up some artwork and give some matte painters some love!  You can also find a lot of matte paintings from TOS here:  TOS Matte Paintings

This matte painting of Starbase 11 just screams Star Trek to me.  The palette of cool blues and purples is quintessential ’60s sci-fi.  And those buildings?  So futuristic!  The sculpture in the front reminds me of a jumble of Klingon bat’leths, although I don’t believe they had even made an appearance yet.  And I can’t help but think the female Star Fleet officer in the front was modeled after Gene Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett, even though her character (the love stricken Nurse Chapel) was a blonde.

As I’m sure you have figured out if you actually read this entire blog, Star Trek holds special meaning in my life.  I know it does for millions or billions or gazillions of others too.  Happy anniversary.  May we all continue to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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