Tag Archives: folklore

Father Time

I think I know how the personification of time evolved in western culture: as an amalgamation of the ancient winged Greek god Chronos and the scythe-wielding titan Cronos (either a deliberate mash-up or an alliterative mix-up), with a touch of the Roman god Saturn thrown in there, which explains the timing of Father Time’s appearance. But when I look at the first visual representations of this composite time figure in the sixteenth century, I can’t help but think that there’s a little bit of post-plague grim reaper that was added to the mix as well. He is certainly not the gently-departing figure that we see on early twentieth-century New Year’s cards, but something/someone a bit more menacing, and vengeful. In the first sixteenth-century image below, he is wiping out cities and people, all the glory of the world. But from/at nearly the same time, the second contemporary image shows a “Father Time” that is more recognizable to us, more placid and representing “the past” (with his hourglass) across the table from a young man who personifies the future. I don’t think the placard (all is sufficient) is a message that we understand today, but the visual trope will become universal, as these two Puck covers from 1911 and 1912 illustrate. Like their sixteenth-century predecessor, these Father Times are well-accessorized, and giving way to their futures: airplanes and votes for women.

Father Time 1590 BM

Father Time 1555 BM

Father Time 1911 LOC

Father Time 1912 LOC

Crispijn de Passe the Elder, print from Deliciarum Juvenilum Libellus, c. 1590; Giulio Bonasone, print from the  Emblems of Achilles Bocchius, c. 1555, both British Museum; Puck Magazine covers from 1911 and 1912, Library of Congress.

Before Father Time’s image became standardized on the magazine covers and postcards of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was a regular feature of watch- and clockmaker trade cards from a century earlier. In fact, I’m wondering if these trade cards didn’t play a key role in standardizing his image. These ephemeral Father Times make perfect sense; after all, clockmakers were, almost literally, selling time. Father Time as symbolic “spokesman” for this industry seems to be more prevalent in Britain than on this side of the Atlantic, but the trade card of a prominent Salem and Boston clockmaker and jeweler, Jabez Baldwin (which I featured in this earlier post) features him prominently.

Father Time Baldwin AAS

Father Time Bowen Watchmaker c 1810 BM

Father Time Ephemera BM

Early Nineteenth-century Trade Cards from the American Antiquarian Society (Baldwin) and the British Museum.

This last trade card, from the 1820s, really harkens back to the sixteenth century and shows both the association and dis-association of time and death: Father Time seems to be breaking away/vanquishing the grim reaper. With this grimness set aside, he is now free to become the benign figure of more recent representations. Most of the New Year’s postcards from a century before depict him as a fairly passive creature, but the wording of the last postcard below (on which he appears only as a presence, not a figure) conveys just a touch of that righteous tone from days gone by.

Father Time 1911

Father Time PC 1916

Father Time 1916


Scarlet Spirit

Well, the year is rapidly coming to an end, so I guess I’ll have to move on from my current obsession with ancient esoteric beverages. But first, one last drink for New Year’s Eve: alchermes (alternatively spelled alkermes), a scarlet red cordial with origins that are medieval, middle eastern, and medicinal. I was looking for something colorful to mix with champagne, and came up with this mysterious red elixir, although I doubt I’ll be able to find a bottle. Today, its most common use is in Italian pastries and the Italian variation on trifle, zuppa Inglese, but in the Renaissance it evolved from a herbal tonic for the heart to a secretive and fashionable cordial under the patronage of the Medici family in general and Catherine de’ Medici in particular, who introduced it to the court of France when she married the future King Henri II in 1533. Alchermes derived its name and its color from its most exotic ingredient, a tiny parasitic bug named kermes, which was later replaced by another red bug, cochineal. The presence of insects (along with gold leaf, crushed pearl, and ambergris) in the elixir doesn’t seem to have been too objectionable before the twentieth century, but thereafter artificial ingredients were substituted (I think). The venerable Dominican Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy is a major producer of Alchermes, which has been recognized and registered as a “traditional product” of Tuscany.

Alchermes 2 red elixir BL 15th C border

Alchermes Catherine Francois Clouet 1560 border

Alchermes V and A border

Alkermes SMN border 2

British Library Sloane MS 2560, central Europe, 15th century: an alchemical treatise illustrating the red elixir, a king or rosa rubea (red rose); Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Consort of France, as a new widow in 1560 by François Clouet; an 18th century pharmacy jar from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum; a bottle of Alkermes from the Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy.


Smoking Bishop

It must be because I have traditional Christmas drinks on the brain, but for the first time a reference to smoking Bishop in one of the last lines of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol caught my attention when I saw a live musical version the other day. I could not count how many times I’ve seen this story on stage and screen, but I never really heard that term before. It came right at the end, after Scrooge has been reformed and is in the process of pledging his support to Bob Cratchit and his family:  “A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we’ll discuss your affairs this very afternoon, before this very fire, over a Christmas bowl of smoking Bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

Smoking Bishop 1

Smoking Bishop 3

Smoking Bishop 2

Now at first I thought this name was yet another example of early modern English anti-Catholicism, or at the very least, an anti-establishment jab. The Puritans disliked the Anglican bishops in their own country just as much as Catholic bishops abroad. But it turns out the name is all about color: the mulled red wine, mixed with port and spices and roasted fruit, was also known as purple wine, a reference to the purple robes and sashes that bishops wore–and still do. Yet another variation on the Wassail–there appear to be countless.

Smoking Bishop 4

Illustrations from the 1911 edition of Dickens’ Christmas Carol by A.C. Michael, the 1915 edition by Arthur Rackham, and Scrooge and Cratchit drinking their Smoking Bishop before the fire by John Leech; Pope Francis greeting a succession of bishops at St. Peters.


Christmas Roses

I like to decorate with live plants at the holidays–and all year round–but I don’t particularly care for the traditional Christmas plants: cyclamen is too gaudy for me, as are Christmas cacti, and I can’t stand the smell of paperwhites. I suppose amaryllis are alright, but I can never get them to bloom on time and, again, I find them a bit showy. Poinsettias are too predictable (and I have cats). So the only flowering plant that I seek this time of year are hellebores, varieties of which are alternatively called “Christmas Roses” (helleborus niger) and “Lenten Roses”. You’ve got to love a winter-blooming flower, and the association with Christmas is based not only on the season but also on the story of a penniless shepherdess who sought to give a gift to the baby Jesus–an angel turned her tears into pale waxen flowers, which were, of course, the greatest gift. Like tears, hellebore petals are seemingly-fragile, especially in contrast to their sturdier stems, and white, like winter (although there are pale pink varieties too–but the Christmas rose is white). There is another dissonance between the virtues of the plant and its seasonal beauty:  all of the classical and medieval herbals testify to its toxic qualities.

Hellebore BM Egerton

Hellebore after John White BM 1600

Hellebore Mary Delaney BM 1770s

Hellebore Cooper Hewitt early 19th century

Hellebore McIntosh

Hellebores 3

Hellebores 2 013

A succession of hellebores:  British Library MS. Egerton 747, Salernitan Herbal c. 1280-1310; two images from the British Museum: after John White, c. 1600 and Mary Delaney, 1770s; early 19th century British soft paste plate from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian; a Charles Rennie MacKintosh drawing, c. 1901-1914, from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; one of my potted hellebores, overlooking a snowy Chestnut Street.


Three Little Bears

An amateur photographer hiking though the woods in eastern Finland this past week was lucky enough to capture the moment that three little bear cubs danced in a circle on their hind legs, producing an image so adorable that it inevitably went viral: I can’t resist showing it here as well. In the accompanying story, Valterri Mulkahainen reports that the bears were scampering around like little children, while all the while he snapped away.

Bears in Finland first

Bears in Finland

Bears in Finland 2

Bears in Finland 3

Now these little bears are irresistible in any configuration, but look at the first two pictures in which they form a threesome and look almost unreal and positively magical: a good example of the “rule of three” as it applies to the animal kingdom. This must be why we have Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three Blind Mice, Three Little Pigs, Three Little Kittens, and Three French Hens, and pubs with names like Three Pheasants and Three Foxes. The authors of fairy tales and nursery rhymes certainly recognized the power of three through the ages, as did their illustrators: these little bears (and Mr. Mulkahainen’s camera) have brought lore to life.

Three Bears Rackham 1922p

Three Bears Brooke 3p

Three White Kittens 1888

Three Pigs Brookep

Three Blind Mice JIp

Illustrations by Arthur Rackham (1922), L. Leslie Brooke (1905) and Walter Corbould (1909).


Halloween & Husbands

The modern secular holiday that is Halloween has evolved in so many ways over the twentieth century that its “customs” would have been unrecognizable even a century ago. At that time, the focus was much more on divination than on horror: pumpkins, black cats, and witches were in the margins but for grown-ups, fortune-telling was in the forefront. There’s a long process of assimilation that creates Halloween–from harvest to Samhain to the eves of All Saints’ and All Souls days–but the evolving traditions of the harvest holiday converged most vividly in Scotland, and Scotch-Irish emigres transferred them to the New World, where they were subject to yet another process of assimilation. In his 1785 poem Hallowe’en, Robert Burns presents and annotates the customs of western Scotland: its longer title, The Merry Diversions of Halloween, encompasses an account of the Kale stalks–burning nuts–Catching sweethearts in the Stalk Yard–Pulling the corn–winding the Blue Clue–Winnowing the Corn–Sowing the Hemp Seed–And the Cutting of the Apple, with the Conclusion of these Merry Meetings, by telling Wonderful Stories about Witches and Fairies. Written in Scots and English, the poem requires some translation, but as the title relates, it all begins with cabbages, witches only come in at the endand Halloween is more merry than scary. Over a century later, one of Ellen Clapsaddle’s most sought after Halloween postcards illustrates the Scottish/cabbage connection.

Halloween Cabbages

Kale or cabbage-pulling was a particular type of divination tied to one’s marital future: unmarried men and women would go out to the patch and pull up a cabbage, and then bring it back to the farm to uncover its stalk–and the characteristics of their future mate: old or young, tall or short, strong (straight) or weak (crooked). Then the stalks would be hung up in a public place to determine exactly who you would marry: if yours was placed third in line you would marry the third man who walked beneath it. Corn (wheat), nuts, apples—all the fruits of the earth–could reveal all sorts of things if you knew the rituals to tease out their secrets, but Halloween rituals definitely seem to focus on relationships. The cabbage patch customs do cross over the Atlantic (with variations) but the most popular crossover was definitely scrying, or mirror magic. In the modern era, scrying usually involves a crystal ball, but centuries ago it was more generally a process that involved water, glass and/or mirrors. Burns’ poem contains a line where a “wee” lass says I’ll eat an apple at the glass which refers to the custom of gazing into a looking glass in candlelight while eating an apple, which will bring forth the visage of your future conjugal companion, peering over your shoulder. There were lots of variations on this ritual, including one which incorporates three bowls of water (clean, dirty, empty) and a blindfold, and another which calls for the seeker to descend backward down the stairs with mirror in hand (sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary’s Curse”), and yet another in which the maiden flips an apple peel over her shoulder to see her future mate. All of these customs crossed over, but mirrors definitely dominated in modern America.

Halloween print BM

Halloween and Husbands 3a

Mezzotint, 1830s, British Museum:  “Place three Plates or other Dishes on the Table, one containing clean water _ another foul _ and the ghird empty _ If the lass [who is / blin]dfolded, put her hand into the clean water, she will soon get a young husband _ If into the foul water, she will [...] / either an old man or a widower _ If into the empty dish, she will die an old maid. // Painted by Alexander Barron. // Engraved by E. Radclyffe.”; 1910 postcard, New York Public Library.

In America, there are fewer visual and literary references to the harvest (except for thoroughly-American pumpkins, of course, as well as apples) and encroaching witches–but all is still relatively merry in the world of turn-of-the century postcards. Things are changing though; the last young woman below looks scared–whether by the sight of the shadowy witch or her future husband, I do not know.

Halloween and Husbands 3

Halloween & Husbands 5

Halloween and Husbands 7

Halloween & Husbands 6

Halloween and Husbands 4

Of course the World Wars will change everything, but the more macabre and ghoulish nature of modern Halloween is hard to imagine when looking at these early 20th century postcards, which portray the holiday in either a whimsical or slightly sarcastic light (see below). But once traditions are torn from their geographical and cultural context and plunged into brave new worlds, their transformation can be frightful.

Halloween & Husbands 11

Halloween & Husbands 12

Halloween Husband 13

Good and bad husbands for Halloween: Rose Company postcards, c. 1900-1909, the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.


Witches and Trees

It strikes me that there are many historical, folkloric, and cultural connections between witches and trees: witches are often described and depicted as gathering under, hanging from, and riding on branches of trees, “witches’ broom” is a tree disease or deformity, the rowan tree was traditionally associated with the warding off of witches. I’m leaving aside the arboreal associations of modern witchcraft. There’s something about the forest primeval in general, and trees in particular, that creates an environment of secrecy and sorcery: this was a setting that was cultivated by Renaissance etchers and resurrected by Victorian illustrators. The trees are often spindly, haggard, misshapen, and barren, like the women underneath them.

Witches Hopfer BM

Witches under a tree 1878

Arthur_Rackham_Witches_Sabbath_1000px

Daniel Hopfer, Gib Frid (Let me Go), early 16th century etching, British Museum; Edward Gurden Dalziel, illustration from Judy Magazine, 13 February 1878, British Museum; Arthur Rackham, ‘The Witches Sabbath’ illustration for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, George Harrap & Co, 1928.

The association seems to be strongest in the folklore associated with Italian witchcraft. In Benevento, the “City of Witches” (occasionally referenced as the “Italian Salem”), witches from all over the world were said to gather annually under a storied walnut tree–a tree that was definitely fruitful. It’s an age-old, deeply-rooted story whose origins seem impossible to trace (at least for a short blog post), but the streghe under the walnut tree have certainly inspired a variety of cultural expressions and commodities, from works of art to musical compositions to the famous Strega digestif, manufactured right in Benevento since 1860.

Witches at Walnut Tree Guglielmo della Porto mid16th met

Benevento

PicMonkey Collage

Guglielmo della Porta, The Witches at the Walnut Tree of Benevento, pen and ink drawing, mid 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lithographed songsheet for Paganini’s Dance of the Witches, 1830s, British Museum; Strega label and walnut tree outside the Alberti factory in Benevento.

To the north there is another representation of witches gathered under a fertile tree:  the famous mural of Massa Maritimma, dating from the mid- to late 13th century and uncovered in 2000. Situated on a wall in the town center enclosing the communal “Fountain of Abundance”, this tree bears strange fruit:  phalluses which the women below are picking and gathering. The discovery of the obscene (???) mural was shocking for some (and its subsequent cleaning remains controversial—you can read about it here), but not to anyone who has any familiarity with the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Witches’ Hammer)  a practical guide to identifying, detecting and prosecuting witches published in 1487. Due to its sheer popularity, which is evidenced by many editions and translations, most historians believe that the Malleus contributed to the intensification of witch-hunting in the early modern era, though its exact role is open to debate. It seems pretty clear to me that the book’s popularity is based in its accessibility, and the sensationalistic anecdotes that its authors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger–probably more the former than the latter) include, among them oft-cited passages about witches stealing men’s “virile members” and hiding them in nests nestled in the branches of trees.

massa-marittima

Massa Maritime detail

The Massa Marittima Mural and detail; you can see it in situ here, and read more about its symbolism here.


Fox and Geese

The pictures from my last post on the Coolidge Reservation do not convey one of its major features:  what remains of  the many geese that obviously enjoy the Ocean Lawn as much as other visitors. I remarked upon this to the ranger who was stationed there, and he laughed and told us that they brought in a fox to keep the geese away, but after a while he gave up and left……the geese won. The parable of the fox and the geese and their adversarial relationship is an old one, even older than the fox in the hen-house I think, and it has inspired centuries of illustrations, decorative objects, and games, all featuring the hunter and the hunted or the geese somehow outfoxing the fox; in either case, the two parties are inevitably intertwined, in one way or another.

Fox and Geese Harley BL

Fox and geese

British Library MS Harley 4751, English Bestiary, 1230-40; Fox and Geese in the Tudor Pattern Book, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1504, 1520-30.

It looks like the fox is winning in these two pre-modern images, and he definitely has the upper hand in most representations of the relationship, at least until the creation of a succession of satirical views from the later eighteenth century onwards.

Fox Goose and Gander

Fox and Geese BM

Johann Heinrich Tischbein, A Goose and a Gander Honking in Alarm as Foxes Approach, mid-18th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Goose Lost (a caricature of British politician Charles James Fox), published by J. Barrow, 1784, British Museum.

Porcelain and pottery with fox-and-goose motifs were also produced around this time, including rather elaborate pieces for extensive table services and the popular ABC and proverbial plates for children. Talk about intertwined: look at the gravy (sauce) boat below!

AMICO_CLARK_1039413730

Fox and Goose Gravy Boat

Fox Plate V and A

Fox and Goose plate Cooper Hewitt

Fox and Goose plate detail

Meissen Porcelain Cup and Saucer, c. 1760, Sterling and Francine Clark Institute; AMAZING Staffordshire Fox and Goose Sauce Boat, c. 1780-1790, and Transferware Plate, 1790, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Creamware Fox and Goose ABC Plate by Elsmore & Son, England, late nineteenth century.

Children’s books published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether fables, nursery rhymes, or bedtime stories, feature a variety of illustrations of foxes and geese, generally on friendlier, or at least less predatory, terms. And then there were the fox-and-goose games of strategic pursuit, played on a board, in the parlor or even outside, which date back to the seventeenth century at the very least. Textile designs in the past and present  feature fox and geese continuously, in abstracted patterns for quilting and knitting, and more literal prints for fabrics and wallpapers.

Fox and Geese Game 1883

FoxGeesePieces

Fox Fabric

Fox and Geese board game, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1993, Smithsonian Institution, and pieces from a modern version of the game; Westfalenstoffe fox and geese fabric.

My favorite images of these two natural enemies are a bit more basic and elemental, in line with the medieval and Tudor images above. The realistic, rather than romantic relationship was captured completely by John James Audubon in the nineteenth century and The National Geographic more recently: these are elemental and eternal images.

audubon

04-feisty-fox-drives-snow-goose-670

John James Audubon, Fox and Goose, c. 1835, Butler Art; An arctic fox and a snow goose face off in Sergy Gorshkov’s photograph for National Geographic,


Ginger Men

Back to Salem and the material world. August is the traditional Americana month in the world of Antiques auctions and shows, and one particular lot from this weekend’s upcoming Skinner Americana auction has me transfixed: Ammi Phillips’ Portrait of a Ginger-haired Young Man, which has an estimate of $15,000-$25,000. What a portrait! Riveting blue eyes, patrician profile, the 19th century hand-in-waistcoat pose, and very notable ginger hair.

Ginger-Haired Man POrtrait

Ginger is the preferred term for red hair in the nineteenth century, and before. The relative rarity of this hair color created a folkloric characterization (shiftless, hot-tempered) that endured for centuries. The weakness of William the Conqueror’s heir, William Rufus, was attributed to his hair color, as was the voracious personality of Henry VIII. Much later, the prejudices subsided, but the titles of nineteenth-century portraits of redheaded men, women and children always reference hair color, still the conspicuous characteristic of the sitter.

Ginger Man William Rufus

Ginger Henry VIII

Ginger Man 1590 V & A

Ginger-Haired Gentleman Skinners

Ginger-Haired Gentlemen Skinners

Ginger Man

The assassination of William Rufus, British Library MS Royal 20 A II;  the ginger-haired Henry VIII, anonymous artist after Hans Holbein, c. 1600, New College, Oxford University; Portrait miniature of an unknown ginger-haired man (previously thought to be Sr. Francis Drake), bu Isaac Oliver, c. 1590, Victoria & Albert Museum; Two nineteenth-century miniature portraits of ginger-haird men, Skinner Auction Archives; Irish Author J.P. Donleavy’s 1955 picaresque novel The Ginger Man, which (apparently) JOHNNY DEPP is considering bringing to the screen.


Imperial Ermine

In the midst of a royal-birth-dominated media week I found myself in my graduate class, interpreting two iconic Renaissance portraits with ermines in them. And thus a post was provoked. How did this little weasel get associated with royalty, pretentious nobility, and the academic and clerical hierarchy? The answer lies in the (rare) white fur of this beast (more scientifically know as the stoat, or short-tailed weasel) as well as the emblems incorporated into what became a distinct ermine design: for no animal has the “ermine” black and white coat, it is a heraldic invention.

Ermine Leonardo

1585_elizabeth_ermine_portr

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan), 1489-90, The Czartoryski Museum and Library, Krakow; Nicholas Hilliard, The Ermine Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, 1585, Hatfield House.

Leonardo has a real ermine in his portrait of a woman who is presumed to be Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of his powerful patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan–whose heraldic emblem was an ermine. But the little creature on Elizabeth’s arm, wearing a crown collar, is an artistic creation based on the ermine pattern, in which the distinctive black tips of the animal’s (several animals actually) tail is stitched onto the fur, sometimes cut into distinct heraldic shapes. I think you can see this most clearly in the portrait below, in which a sixteen-century German merchant’s wife is wearing very distinct ermine sleeves (and a lot of jewelry) with her family crest in the corner.

ermine Cologne portrait

Bathel Bruyn the Younger, Portrait of Woman of the Slosgin Family of Cologne, 1557, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As eminent (and wealthy) as she might have been, this woman is not a Queen–or even the mistress of a Duke: it seems like anyone can wear ermine in the sixteenth century, at least outside of England. The black-and-white (or white-and-black) patterned “fur” had become a device of conspicuous consumption and social mobility, because of its long-held associations with majesty, wealth, and a Christ-like “purity bought with his own death”, in which it was said that the ermine would give himself up to the approaching hunter, so not to sully his pure white winter coat (not quite sure why this was royal). The sheer expense of  ermine is most likely the ultimate source of its desire and association with the wealthy and privileged: the stoat’s coat is pure white only in winter, and then there are all those little black tails. I do think ermine maintains its exclusive association with royalty longer in England than on the Continent, but I could be wrong.

Ermine Bedford Hours

Ermine George I

Ermine sign for Crown Inn 1750 V and A

Ermines

Ermine in various incarnations, through the ages: The Duke of Bedford prays before St. George in his ermine-lined robe, c 1423, the Bedford Hours, 1423  (Additional Ms. 18850 ), British Library, Mezzotint of King George I by John Smith, 1715, British Museum; Drawing for a sign for the Crown Inn, c. 1750, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The Stout wearing his summer and winter coats, Prang & Co., 1878, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.  

Appendix:  as a stark contrast to Leonardo’s portrait, I could not resist adding this Ermine with a Lady portrait” by Ellen Paquette!

Ermine with a Lady


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