Category Archives: Culture

Keeping Christmas

Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.

martin-luther-christmas-book

keeping-christmas-luther-wheat-sheaf

The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!

I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff.  But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.

“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings:  a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.

keeping-christmas-italianate

keeping-christmas-wreath-1keeping-christmas-collage

keeping-christmas-assemble-house2

Downtown lights.jpg

keeping-christmas-window

I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.

keeping-christmas-window-with-trinity

keeping-christmas-interiors

keeping-christmas-mice-mantle

keeping-christmas-animals

keeping-christmas-presents

And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!


Christmas Covers

I really like the visual aesthetic of early twentieth-century Christmases, as represented by shelter magazines from that era: cozy, warm and stylish–not so commercial. Colorful, but not glittery. People (or their servants) are making Christmas rather than buying it. House & Garden is probably the most stylish, but it was an evolution, as you will see below. I looked through 10+ years of Christmas covers from 1912 through the 1920s and saw the transformation of the Christmas home from somewhat-realistic refuge to a more idealistic showplace, a transition that seems to coincide with the coming of the First World War and is exemplified in the illustrations of Ethel Franklin Betts. The post-war Christmas spirit is a little bit more romantic and curatorial: the house is presented to us through a series of vignettes. It’s all a bit less accessible, except through all those beautifully-draped windows that allow us to peep inside, drawn by the light.

housegarden22greeuoft_0359-1912

housegarden24greeuoft_0363-1913

housegarden26greeuoft_0353-1914

housegarden28greeuoft_0321-1915

housegarden30greeuoft_0299-1916

housegarden33greeuoft_0351-1917

housegarden34greeuoft_0279-1918

housegarden36greeuoft_0369-1919

housegarden38greeuoft_0373-1920

housegarden39greeuoft_0729-1921-november

housegarden42greeuoft_0453-1922

House & Garden Christmas covers from 1912-1922 (except the canopy bed, which is a November 1921 issue–I just loved it) accessed via the Online Books page at the University of Pennsylvania. Below is my very favorite cover, from 1925, and the inspiration for this post–a special “storybook” house in Salem, all lit up for Christmas.

christmas-1925

christmas-house-salem


Pastry Castles

There is much focus on food and drink during December, of course, and today I’m thinking about “pastry castles”, an early form, perhaps, of our own American gingerbread houses? The British Library recently digitized one of the oldest English cookbooks (which is actually a cook-scroll), the Forme of Cury (Add MS 5016), and the recipe for “chastletes” is a conspicuous entry. The Forme of Cury ( a Middle English title for “method of cookery” having nothing to do with England’s current national dish) was written by the chefs of Richard II’s kitchen in the later fourteenth century, and includes recipes for both “common” and “curious” foods, and “for all manner of states, both high and low”. One assumes that the pastry castles, which are a curious mix of sweet and savory in typical late medieval fashion, were produced for the former.

forme-of-cury-scroll-bl

recipe-pastry-forme-of-cury-add5016

feast

Forme of Cury scroll and recipe for pastry castles, BL Add MS 5016; a feast featuring a “chastlete” in a late-medieval Bruges manuscript, BL Royal MS. 15 D I.    

Here is the recipe for chastletes in its original Middle English:  Take and make a foyle of gode past with a roller of a foot brode. & lyngur by cumpas. make iiii Coffyns of þe self past uppon þe rolleres þe gretnesse of þe smale of þyn Arme. of vi ynche depnesse. make þe gretust in þe myddell. fasten þe foile in þe mouth upwarde. & fasten þee oþere foure in euery syde. kerue out keyntlich kyrnels above in þe manere of bataiwyng and drye hem harde in an Ovene. oþer in þe Sunne. In þe myddel Coffyn do a fars of Pork with gode Pork & ayrenn rawe wiþ salt. & colour it wiþ safroun and do in anoþer Creme of Almandes. and helde it in anoþer creme of Cowe mylke with ayrenn. colour it with saundres. anoþur manur. Fars of Fygur. of raysouns. of Apples. of Peeres. & holde it in broun. anoþer manere. do fars as to frytours blanched. and colour it with grene. put þis to þe ovene & bake it wel. & serue it forth with ew ardaunt.

The “Coffyns” refer to the pastry shell, encasing the savory mixture of pork, saffron (amazingly dear at the time!), almonds, raisins, apples and pears—mincemeat essentially. The entire form was not made of “bread”, consequently it’s difficult to make the link between these constructions and our own modern gingerbread houses, which seem to have more modern, continental origins, although Elizabeth I purportedly instructed her cooks to make gingerbread men and women in the recognizable forms of her courtiers and guests. I think we’re talking about multiple lines of food cultural evolution here—pies, cakes, ginger, ginger cakes, breads, and houses–and perhaps I shouldn’t mix them up except under the label of “architectural pastry constructions”.  If I could make my own pastry castle, which I would fill with cake and not mincemeat, I would certainly recreate one of Elizabeth’s very favorite castles, Nonsuch Palace, built by her father in the last years of his reign. This is well beyond my baking abilities, but wow, just imagine such a structure!

nonsuch_palace_by_joris_hoefnagel

nonsuch-2

Two views of Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel–the second was just acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum.


St. Andrew’s Cross

I’ve been writing posts on various saints days over the years and yesterday I realized I had never posted about St. Andrew on his feast day, a notable omission both in general and for me, in particular, as I was fortunate to spend my junior year at St. Andrew’s University, and the town remains one of my very favorite places on earth. Though I think most people associate St. Andrew exclusively with Scotland, he is venerated widely: in much of eastern Europe, in the Caribbean and even South America. Andrew was the first Apostle, the brother of Peter, and an ardent missionary: it is said that he continued to spread the gospel during much of his crucifixion, on an x-shaped cross forever associated with his name: the saltire or St. Andrew’s Cross. Such a powerful symbol of assertion, both against a field of blue as the Scottish flag, or as the southern cross on the Confederate flag. The connotations of the former are all positive as compared with the latter, of course, and St. Andrew’s Day has been a bank holiday in Scotland since 2006.

st-andrew-collage

martirio_de_san_andres_por_juan_correa_de_vivar-xlarge_transqvzuuqpflyliwib6ntmjwfsvwez_ven7c6bhu2jjnt8

st-andrews-the-saltire-flag Late medieval manuscript images of St. Andrew from the British and St. Andrew’s University Libraries; Juan Correa de Vivar, Crucifixion of St. Andrew, c. 1540, University of St. Andrew’s Special Collections; the saltire unfurled.

Scotland’s claim to St. Andrew has always struck me as a little convoluted, but it became official, and lasting, with the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), a letter written by the barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII asking for recognition of the country’s independence and acknowledgment of Robert the Bruce as its rightful king. Scotland’s “Declaration of Independence” incorporated the esteemed St. Andrew as part of its plea, for “The high qualities and deserts of these people, were they not otherwise manifest, gain glory enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ, after his Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His most holy faith. Nor would He have them confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles – by calling, though second or third rank – the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever.”  Another very powerful assertion, as St. Andrew certainly outranked the emerging patron saint George of Scotland’s perennial enemy, England. Combined with a classical origins story, language, literature, Presbyterianism, the “auld alliance” with France, and myriad other claims and customs, St. Andrew helped Scotland preserve a very distinct national identity even after it became part of Great Britain. And then, in that golden age of romantic nationalism that was the nineteenth century, the Saint and his cross seem to be emblazoned on all forms of material culture associated with Scotland, transforming him into a more secular patron and ensuring his survival into the modern age.

st-andrews-glass

st-andrew-tile-minton-vanda

st-andrew-wallpaper-crane

st-andrews-day-projection-edinburgh-2013

The symbolic British Empire in glass, c. 1840: stained glass panels by C.E. Gwilt representing St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. George of England; a Minton tile, c. 1875; Walter Crane’s “National” wallpaper, 1890s, all collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum; St. Andrew’s Day 2013 in Edinburgh.


Boston Halloween

Besides living in the self-proclaimed Witch City, yet another aspect of my tortured relationship with Halloween is my birthday, which falls a few days before and inevitably gets colored (darkened) by the proximity. It’s not quite as bad as having a Christmas birthday, but close, especially for me. There’s generally a big storm on my big day too–but not this year, thank goodness. This year we have family in town to celebrate their first Salem Halloween, but there was no way I was going to be their guide, so I left them to my husband and fled to Boston for the day. I went to the Museum of Fine Arts for the William Merritt Chase and Della Robbia exhibitions (the women!), then to the Antiquarian Book Show  (the prices!) at the Hynes Convention Center, and then I just walked around the Back Bay and Beacon Hill, as the weather got progressively warmer over the day. Oddly enough, I found myself enjoying the Halloween decorations on the stately brownstones and townhouses: very creative and such a contrast to the architecture! Maybe I like Halloween after all (just not in Salem).

Back Bay:

boston-halloween-back-bay

boston-halloween2-back-bay

boston-halloween-3-back-bay

boston-halloween-book-show

Just one book from the show at the Hynes in keeping with the theme: next post I’m going to write about a beautiful ($45,000) incunabulum I had never heard of before (if I can find out enough about it).

Beacon Hill: who knew that Louisburg Square was Halloween central? This first house was amazing.

boston-halloween-13-ls

boston-halloween-10-ls

boston-halloween-11-ls

boston-halloween-12-ls

boston-halloween-8-lq

boston-halloween-9-ls

boston-halloween-collage

j IOP-[0

boston-halloween-14-bhill

 

 


A Rare Emblematic Eagle

It is interesting to trace the adoption of the eternal eagle as a national symbol for the United States in the first fifty years of its existence, and its adaptation in Europe and Asia by entities eager to take advantage of the new American market. The eagle has been used in heraldry since time immemorial, so it took more than baldness to make it American (remember, Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey for the national symbol, in part (I think!) because eagles were so universal). There’s a very informative essay on “Eagles after the American Revolution” at the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (a resource I use often) which commences its analysis with Edward Savage’s Liberty, reproduced on reverse-pained glass in China for the American market around 1800. The image shows the former American emblem, a native goddess representing Liberty, passing her torch to the new not-very-bald American eagle.

eagle-savage

Chinese reverse-painted glass depiction of Edward Savage’s 1796 print “Liberty”, c. 1800, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And after that, a veritable explosion of American eagles, appearing in all sorts of poses and forms before standardization occurs. There is a relatively rare eagle emblem from this era that seems so Salem to me: a triumphant seafaring bald eagle rides into a harbor on a shell boat, with shield and flag brazenly displayed. The harbor looks more romantic than federal, but still, the image seems to represent the commercial and maritime foundations of the American enterprise. This past weekend, I almost purchased a saucer bearing one of these “Eagle riding on/in a shell” images, but ultimately decided it was too dear. Manufactured by only one Staffordshire pottery firm, R. Hall & Son, in the 1820s and 1830s, it seems to be one of the few transferware patterns that has held its value over the past decade.

eagle-saucer-winterthur

 

eagle-riding-on-a-shell-saucer

eagle-riding-on-a-shell-skinner-auctions

eagle-riding-shell-blue-collage

eagle-riding-shell-rose-collage

eagle-and-shell-black

“Eagle Riding on a Shell” transfer-printed pottery in green, blue, rose and black made by the Ralph Hall Factory, Tunstall, Staffordshire, England, 1822-40, from the Collections of the Winterthur Museum, Skinner and Northeast Auctions–interspersed with some centennial textiles made by the American Print Works in Fall River, Massachusetts in the 1870s (another era of eagle creativity), collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum


Face-based History

I am a longtime admirer of Simon Schama, as both historian and art historian, presenter and public intellectual. For me, his study of the Dutch Golden Age, The Embarrassment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age (1987) is a classic of cultural history, illustrating a masterful engagement of textual and material sources, almost Burckhardtian in its scope. I always have it close at hand. Even though Schama is not principally an English historian, I show bits and pieces of his History of Britain series in class, just because he is such a good communicator–and teacher. As any reader of this blog (or former student) knows, I’m always utilizing (I think of it as playing with, actually, as I am not trained) art in class, in large part due to Schama, even though I am far less knowledgeable and adept than he. Schama’s latest project focuses on British portraits in the National Portrait Gallery, probably my very favorite museum in the world: The Face of Britain is a multi-media history of Britain through its portraits, rather than a history of British portraits. Through an exhibition last year at the NPG, and an accompanying book and television series, Schama examines Britain’s relatively modern history (after all, the portrait is a Renaissance creation) through portraits of individuals which represent both precise historical moments and dynamic trends. A very representative, and compelling, vignette relates the creation of a famous (or infamous) portrait of Winston Churchill, commissioned for the Prime Minister’s 80th birthday by Parliament. There was quite a bit of push-and-pull between Churchill and the commissioned artist, Graham Sunderland, resulting in a portrait that is described by Schama as a “beautiful ruin” detested by the subject, the humiliation of the artist at its public unveiling in 1954, and its eventual  destruction by Lady Churchill or one of her delegates. All we have are studies and photographs of the painting that captured this particular historical moment.

NPG 5332; Winston Churchill by Graham Vivian Sutherland

Preparatory Study for Winston Churchill’s 1954 portrait by Graham Vivian Sunderland, National Portrait Gallery.

The making of Churchill’s portrait is a study in power dynamics, and Schama explores other kinds of relationships in his exhibition/presentation/narrative: “The Face of Power” is accompanied by “Faces of the People”, “The Face of Fame”, “The Look of Love”, and “The Face of the Mirror”. The essential relationship in all of these categories, however, is between the artist and the subject, and consequently it is a bit difficult to string along an entire collective history. I didn’t see the exhibition, but I heard from friends that it was confusing because of its conceptual-rather-than-chronological structure. I do have the book and I’ve seen several episodes of the series, and (once again) Schama’s superior communication skills do seem to carry us along, especially as we move among variant genres: “portable portraits”, miniatures, statues, engravings, photographs. I didn’t learn too much from his analysis of the Tudor and Stuart portraits–I’ve heard all that virgin and martyr stuff before–though I do appreciate the inclusion of Oliver Cromwell’s “warts and all” portrait and the “mourning portraits” Kenelm Digby commissioned of his beloved Venetia. I got a little lost in the later seventeenth century, but thought he made effective arguments for the representational value of portraits from the eighteenth century up through much of the twentieth, and I LOVED his “faces of the mirror”: I always though of self-portraits as being exclusively individualistic and not particularly dependent on context, but no longer! As is often the case with Schama, his transitions were subtle and his connections convincing, so in the end I found myself agreeing with his assertion that”portraits bring you into their company”.

Historical faces from Schama’s Face of Britain: Sir Francis Drake, whom Schama calls “the first genuine heroic famous Englishman”, principally because he is a “man of action”; Two very different portraits by William Hogarth: David Garrick as Richard III and the convicted murderess Sarah Malcolm in prison; Two earnest expressions of love by Thomas Gainsborough (for his daughters) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (for Jane Morris, the wife of his William), and some amazing artists’ self-portraits, for which Schama provides plenty of context: Gerlach Flicke (cropped), an imprisoned sixteenth-century artist who painted the first English self-portrait so that his “dear friends….might have something by which to remember him after his death.”, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and William Orpen, “Ready to Start” fighing (?) in the Great War. Apparently Orpen later regretted his trivializing accouterments.

NPG 4032; Sir Francis Drake by Unknown artistSir Francis Drake by an unknown artist, c. 1580, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-800_hogarth_davidgarrick_as_richardiii David Garrick as Richard III, William Hogarth, © Walker Art Gallery

british-faces-hogarth-sarah-malcolm-in-prison Sarah Malcolm by William Hogarth, Sarah Malcolm © Scottish National Gallery

british-faces-gainsborough-daughters-npgThe Painter’s Daughters chasing a Butterfly, Thomas Gainsborough ©National Gallery

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel, 1828-1882; Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris)Blue Silk Dress (Jane Morris) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ©Society of Antiquaries of London

british-faces-gerlach_flicke_by_gerlach_flicke_crop Gerlach Flicke, ©National Portrait Gallery

British Faces Self-portrait_c.1747-9_by_Joshua_Reynolds_(2).jpgSir Joshua Reynolds, ©National Portrait Gallery

british-faces-498px-william_orpen-ready_to_start-1917 William Orpen, Ready to Start, ©Imperial War Museum


%d bloggers like this: