Tag Archives: Culture

Witches Three

Because I’m not going to make it to Scotland this summer (or Fall, probably) I have been perusing the various sites and reviews devoted to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s current exhibition, Witches and Wicked Bodies, to see if I can find witchcraft images that I haven’t seen before. The depiction of witchcraft from the Renaissance on is a compelling visual and cultural topic: I can’t believe there hasn’t been an exhibition before this. I have a whole portfolio of images that I use in my various courses, and rely heavily on the analysis in Charles Zika’s great book: The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-century Europe (for the best analysis of the really provocative prints of early sixteenth-century artist Hans Baldung Grien) as well as the sources and images available at another ongoing Scottish(digital) exhibitionThe Damned Art: Witchcraft and Demonology. Witchcraft has been serious business in Scotland, from the days of King James VI’s Daemonologie (1597) to the present.


Looking through the images from these various sources, I am struck by the rule of three:  how very often witches are depicted in a group of three, as in Henry Fuseli’s 1785 iconic image of the Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth on the exhibition poster above. Fuseli’s image is easily explainable: it is based on Shakespeare’s three prophetic sisters which is in turn based on those of Holinshed’s Chronicle, which is in turn based on the traditional threefold warnings of doom. But even before Shakespeare’s time, witches are often found in parties of three, perhaps to depict a closed and empowered circle, the smallest coven or conspiracy, or a demonic inversion of the Holy Trinity. The Scotland show features several witchcraft themes, Macbeth and magic circles (as well as witches in flight and devilish rituals) which highlight the power of three. But then what about good things come in threes or third time’s a charm?

Three Witches Molitor 1489p

Three Witches Flowers 1619

John Runciman

NPG 6903; The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner

William Blakethe Triple Hectate1795

Three Witches Rackham1911

Three Witches Belfast

Three Witches depicted in: Ulrich Molitor’s lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (1489) and The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (1619), Ferguson Collection, University of Glasgow; John Runciman, Three Satyrs’ Heads, 18th century, National Galleries of Scotland; Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer, 1775) National  Portrait Gallery, London;  William Blake, The Triple Hectate, 1795, National Galleries of  Scotland; Arthur Rackham’s Three Witches/Gossips, 1911, from The Ingoldsby Legends of Myth & Marvels; the Weird Sisters in last year’s production of Macbeth at the Lyric Threatre in Belfast, Northern Ireland. No Goya—too scary!

Why not Alfred?

Very soon we will have a name for the new royal prince and it will probably not be Alfred (all the odds seem to be on boring George or James), but I say: why not?  The  Anglo-Saxon kings are the most English of all English monarchs, and Alfred was, of course, the Great. His lifetime (849-899) was contentious and “dark”, but he shed light whenever he could. Though officially King of the West Saxons, he styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons, and most historians think of him as the first King of England–at least that part not occupied by the Vikings. Alfred contained these same Vikings, by building a strong fortification system and a navy (again–what could be more English than this?) He was also that very rare early medieval king–a scholar–and as such translated classical and religious works into the language (Anglo-Saxon, Old English) of his countrymen, promoting knowledge and his native language at the same time. Alfred was truly a keeper of the peace and a unifier of England–both in terms of his military and administrative systems and his codified laws–and the only English king to be titled “the Great”: what better namesake?

NPG 4269; King Alfred ('The Great') by Unknown artist

NPG D9257; King Alfred ('The Great') by John Faber Sr

Alfred Counties

NT; (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Alfred 1912 BM

The only way to see Alfred as his contemporaries did is on the many coins from his realm, another sign of his effective kingship. Much later, his image becomes much more legendary: Ninth-century coin, and 1712 print by John Faber Sr., both National Portrait Gallery, London; “King Alfred the Great forming a Code of Laws and Dividing the Kingdom into Counties, Tythings, Hundreds, &”, Charles Grignion illustration from Raymond’s History of England, British Museum, King Alfred the Great attributed to Samuel Woodforde, c. 1810-15, The National Trust @ Stourhead; Print of Frank O. Salisbury’s King Alfred the Great Rebuilding the Walls of the City of London, 1912, British Museum.

Streets of Boston

Like everyone else, I was thinking about Boston a lot yesterday and as it was a non-teaching day I was very vulnerable to the drip drip of media “updates” while at home. So I turned off everything and looked through some books about Boston:  its history, its architecture, its culture. Much better! Then I began assembling some of my favorite images and impressions of the city, and as that seemed like a somewhat productive enterprise I began to feel even better. So what I have today is a very random sample of my “collection”, including old favorites, new discoveries, and images of past and near-present. Boston is a dynamic city which has experienced a lot of change in the past few decades, but when I look at these images I still see a recognizable city, with the exception of the harbor views–visual reminders that Boston’s first and foremost identity for several centuries was that of a port. Paul Revere would draw on these prints a few decades later for his pre-revolutionary depiction of the occupation of Boston by British ships.

PicMonkey Collage with border

Two James Turner etchings of Boston’s wharves in the mid-eighteenth century from The American Magazine (Boston: Rogers and Fowle, 1743-46) and a hand-colored etching by John Carwitham of “A South East View of the Great Town of Boston in New England in America” (London: c. 1730-60), American Antiquarian Society, Worcester.

A century later, it’s more about the streets of Boston, the emerging “hub of the universe” and “Athens of America”. The mid- to late-nineteenth century were heady days for Boston, which of course had left Salem in the dust. During my hunt yesterday, I was particularly surprised to find that my favorite British pioneering photographer, Francis Frith, had included several images of Boston in his “Universal Series”. Artworks of varying mediums–watercolor, oil, another photograph–to depict other city scenes at around the same time.

Boston Francis Frith

Boston Frish State house

Boston Benjamin Champney 1851

Boston Railraod Jubilee on Boston Common William Sharp 1851

Boston Tremont Street 1860

Francis Frith photographs of Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House, 1850s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Benjamin Champney, Washington Street, Boston, 1850, Princeton University Graphic Arts Department; William Sharp, Railroad Jubilee on Boston Common, 1851, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Tremont Street, 1860, Halliday Historic Photograph Company, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

And then there are the novel views of the city, created by creative and entrepreneurial publishers, cartographers, and balloonists! The nineteenth century loved the “big picture”.

Boston Balloon View 1860

Boston Birds Eye Triptych

James Black, Boston, as the Eagle and Wild Goose See It”, 1860, Metropolitan Museum of Art; a Birds Eye View of Boston Triptych, 1903, ArtHouseGraffiti.

Of the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “Boston painters’, I think Arthur Clifton Goodwin was particularly adept at capturing Boston streetscapes in his impressionistic way. There are lots of Goodwin paintings to choose from (in auction archives and the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which gave him his own posthumous show in the 1970s), but I went with Copley Square (1908). Of course I had to include a painting from his fellow Boston Impressionist, the more well-known Childe Hassam, so I went for Mount Vernon Street (1919) one of the most beautiful, and reproduced, streets of Boston. Jump forward thirty years, and you’re looking at “old” Beacon Hill with the financial district rising above it from across the Charles River in Cambridge in an amazing (oil!) painting by Thomas Adrian Fransioli. I love the “modern” look of this painting, although I believe that Fransioli is referencing the present, the past, and the future. Boston looks like the “shining city on the hill” that it has always been.

Boston Copley Square 1908 Arthur Clifton Goodwin MFA

Boston Mt Vernon Street Childe Hassam 1919 Christies

Boston Beadon Hill Fransioli 1947 MFA

Arthur Clifton Goodwin, Copley Square, London , 1908, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Childe Hassam, Mount Vernon Street, Christies; Thomas Adrian Fransioli, Beacon Hill, 1947, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Salem Film Fest 2013

Despite some very nasty weather, the sixth annual Salem Film Fest opened yesterday, bringing 32 documentary films to town for screenings at the Peabody Essex Museum, Cinema Salem, and the Visitors  Center of the National Park Service. This festival gets bigger and better every year; I can tell because (it’s all about me) I always make a list of films I want to see and each year the list gets longer and more of my choices sell out. This year, I had The Ghost Army on the top of my list, and it sold out immediately. They’ve added another show next week, but I’m sure it’s selling out as I write. This film, by award-winning documentarian Rick Beyer, tells the incredible story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a World War II Army unit whose job was to deceive the Germans by staging fake battlefield maneuvers, often very close to the front lines. They staged more than 200 “performances” between D-Day and V-E day, using inflatable tanks and a variety of sound effects. Can you imagine a better subject for a documentary?  While its premiere was right here in Salem last night, it will be broadcast later this Spring on PBS, so look for it.

Inflatable Tank

Bill Blass Jeep

Pictures from the Ghost Army website: an inflatable tank an a smiling Bill Blass, a member of the unit. Yes, THAT Bill Blass, the future fashion designer.

Next on my list is another World War II-related film, Andrew Shea’s Portrait of Wally, about a Nazi-plundered painting, Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally (1912), its acquisition by Austria’s Leopold Museum and subsequent discovery in a 1997 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the long legal struggle which followed.


The Missing Piece: The Truth about the Man who Stole the Mona Lisa considers the motivation behind Vincenzo Peruggia’s daring theft of Leonardo’s masterpiece in 1911. Apparently Peruggia’s 84-year-old daughter believes it was a patriotic action on the part of her father, a former worker at the Louvre who committed the “art theft of the century” (actually, I think the 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum takes that prize) in order to return the painting to its “homeland”. This might explain the fact that Peruggia was sentenced to a mere 15 days for his crime by an Italian court in 1914 and never served a day; no doubt a French court would have come up with a stiffer sentence.

Missing Piece

After these three, I am a little torn:  Big Easy Express, about a musical train journey from California to New Orleans, looks great, as does Radio Unnameable, about a pioneering 1960s disc jockey. Town of Runners, about a small Ethiopian town that produces more Olympic gold medalists per capita (by far) than any other place in the world, looks interesting, as does The World before Her, which takes us to a beauty boot camp for 20 aspiring Miss Indias (you can see why the festival’s tagline is “come to Salem, see the world”).  There is no question that my own award for Best Title goes to Furever, a film about the remembrance of pets past.


Reynard the Fox

That fox pulling the papal tiara off Celestine V’s head in my last post reminded me of Reynard the Fox, a very popular medieval fable which developed in the later twelfth and thirteen centuries in France and Germany, from where it spread throughout western Europe:  the many “branches” of Reynard verse are generally grouped together as the Roman de Renart cycle. Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox who is always up to no good, a cunning trickster whose escapades are both entertaining and illuminating. He is the animal representative of the medieval outlaw, far less benevolent than Robin Hood, and utilized by medieval scribes (who were of course, monks) as a form of satirical and whimsical criticism.  But Reynard is also a fox, and like all sly foxes, quite capable of feigning vulnerability (and piety) in order to elude capture and capture his next meal. One of the most common images in medieval manuscripts is of Reynard preaching, to an audience of birds whom he intends to eat.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.49v

Fox Preaching Stowe

British Library MS  Royal 10 E IV, late 13th/early 14th century, and MS Stowe 17, “The Maastricht Hours”, early 14th century.

In every Reynard tale, the fox is summoned before a court of his animal peers, headed by a lion, of course, and called to task for his bad behavior. He always manages to outfox his judges by his cunning. He feigns remorse, confesses his sins, and sets off on a holy pilgrimage of atonement, only to get into more trouble. A death sentence leads to more displays of cunning, exploits and opportunities, and consequently he becomes the sympathetic “hero”, the one for whom we root.

Reynard the Fox Bod MS Douce 360

Reynard Bod Ms Douce Reynard Dead

Reynard as a “pious” pilgrim and on the cart of a fishmonger who has presumed him dead–meanwhile, the fox is working his way through the stock of fish:  Bodleian MS Douce 360, “The Romance of Reynard and Isengrin”, 1339.

I definitely think Reynard’s popularity increased in the late medieval era along with anticlericalism and lay piety, and he makes it into print relatively early. In England, William Caxton published his own translation in 1481, and the “history” was reprinted regularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There followed all sorts of literary adaptations, as Reynard, like any outlaw, is readily adaptable. The most famous modern adaptation is Reneike Fuchs, an epic poem produced by Johann Wolfgang von Geothe in 1794, supposedly influenced by the events of the French Revolution. The editions of this text issued from the mid-nineteenth century, illustrated by Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Joseph Wolfe, must have been extremely popular as they were constantly in print. There were also a succession of children’s versions of the fable issued in the nineteenth century, and really beautiful artistic editions published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1892 (a reprint of Caxton) and the Insel Verlag Press in 1913.

V0023068EL A fox in a monk's habit is apparently deeply engrossed in pr

Reynard the Pilgrim

Reynard Kelmscott Press 1892

Reinke Voss 1913

Reynard posing as a monk in order to access the chicken coop of a monastery, and as a pilgrim being blessed by a ram-priest, Wolfe and von Klaubach illustrations from 1853 & 1846; first page of the Kelmscott Press Caxton edition, 1892; Cover of first edition of Reinke Voss, 1913.

Reynard lives on in a variety of forms and formats in the twentieth century, and today can be found on everything from pillows to china to chess sets. He seems to have shed a lot of the satirical and moralistic messages of his medieval origins, but he was never that moral a character to begin with so I guess it doesn’t matter!

Reynard the Fox Coffee Service

Reynard the Fox Etsy

Two Reynards that I covet:  a Royal Doulton coffee service from 1935, and pencil illustration of Reynard the Fox Detective.

Hollywood History

This has been quite the year for historical movies: the majority of best-picture nominees are set in the past, even if it’s the relatively recent past of Argo and the very recent past of Zero Dark Thirty. In addition, there has been lots of discussion about the historical accuracy of these films which, while occasionally interesting (particularly the Connecticut v. Lincoln controversy, initiated when Connecticut congressman Tom Coutenay criticizing the film for its portrayal of two fictional Connecticut congressmen voting against the 13th amendment when in fact all four congressmen from the state voted for the amendment outlawing slavery) is hardly news. All historians know that “historical” films are never accurate, but I, for one, still have my favorite films set in the past. I like these films for various reasons– the feelings they provoke, the certain aura or spirit that they might capture, the way they look, the performances, the soundtracks– but I rarely learn anything from them. There are some films that I like to show in class just because they provide a lesson in just how inaccurate “historical” films can be!


So, in honor of Oscar night, here are my top ten period films, in chronological order of setting. I’ve left out the major epic movies, most of which I do not like either as movies or history, in favor of “smaller” films that are personal favorites.  And remember, I teach medieval and early modern history, so most of my films come from these eras:  sorry, no World War II films, guys (I actually like war films, but I’m more of the Mrs. Miniver and Best Years of Our Lives type, with the exception of submarine movies, which for some reason I adore. If I could add an eleventh film, it would be Das Boot).

Medieval Movies:

The Thirteenth Warrior (1998):  this film was a financial and critical failure, but I like it, or parts of it. Based on Michael Chrichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, the plot is a curious combination of Beowulf, pre-Christian Scandinavian culture, and a real early medieval source:  the Risala of Ibn Fadlan, the chronicle of a 10th century Arab diplomat who journeyed to eastern Europe and Russia and encountered the Vikings along the way.

Valhalla Rising (2009): an extremely atmospheric film in which a one-eyed Norse warrior (Odin?) and his child companion go on a mysterious journey, and end up in the New World. They come out of the fog into a dramatic encounter with Native Americans (apparently played by Tibetans) at the very end of the film. This is not an easy film, but its marriage of mysticism and blind faith are pretty compelling.

The Seventh Seal (1957): Ingmar Bergman’s classic film about a returning Swedish (again–I didn’t realize I was so obsessed with Scandinavia before writing this post!) Crusader’s encounter with the Black Death and Death Personified, with whom he plays chess intermittently throughout the films until Death wins. The scene in which the knight and his companions wait for death/Death at dinner in his castle is haunting, as is their “Dance of Death” at the very end of the film. This is one of the few films which I try to show in its entirety in class, rather than just clips, and the students usually get (into) it.


A Knight’s Tale (2001):  and on a much lighter note………….you might be surprised to find this film on my list but I love this film’s spirit as well as its use of very deliberate anachronisms. I like to think of Chaucer’s world this way. You can’t recreate the fourteenth century on film anyway, so you might as well have fun!

Henry V (1989): this is my favorite Shakespeare film as well as my favorite Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare film. The St. Crispin’s Day speech is of course extremely inspiring, as is the score by Patrick Doyle, most especially the choral epilogue at the end of the Battle of Agincourt:  “Non Nobis, Domine”. Most students have a rather romantic view of medieval warfare, which the long and bloody battle scene helps to dispel.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): it is difficult to over-emphasize the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film, which narrates the examination, trial and execution of Joan of Arc in 1431 through extreme close-ups of the participants, warts and all. The master negative of the film was destroyed in a lab fire only a year after its release, and so the complete film was lost for decades, until a copy was miraculously found in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in the early 1980s. The DVD release in the 1990s includes an oratorio by Richard Einhorn called “Voices of Light” which actually makes the silent film even more compelling, but the real star of the production is actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who appears to be in a near-ecstatic state for most of the film, as if possessed by Joan.

A Queen and Two Kings:

Elizabeth (1998): this film is a historical hot mess which plays with chronology and the facts with abandon—and the sets are terrible. Nevertheless I do like Cate Blanchett’s characterization of the young Elizabeth, and the movie is useful to me as I can teach against it.  I really like the poster too: I have framed versions in both my university and home offices.

elizabeth 1998

A Man for all Seasons (1966):  now here is an example of much more subtle anachronism, with Thomas More not only deified for his faith, but also for his individualism. There were so many English “historical” movies made in the 1960s (The Lion in Winter, Becket, Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary Queen of Scots, Lawrence of Arabia, etc…) that I felt that I should include one, and More’s struggle between conscience and obligation to Henry VIII is universally appealing. Paul Scofield as More and Richard Shaw as Henry VIII are both great; in fact, Shaw is probably my favorite screen Henry VIII. If I show clips in class, however, I feel that I have to balance the film’s portrayal of More’s resolute passage to martyrdom with his zealous persecution of Protestants.

Man for all Seasons movie poster

The Madness of King George (1994): a very entertaining presentation of King George III’s descent (and recovery) into a porphyria-induced insanity in the late eighteenth century, and the ensuing Regency Crisis. The actual events seem to be accurately, albeit dramatically, portrayed, but this is not really my period so I can’t critique accuracy; I’m just entertained. Nigel Hawthorne as King George is amazing in this film; he was robbed by Forrest Gump of the Oscar that year.

One War Film:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): an extremely powerful view of another descent, of innocent, whipped-up German boys into the hell of World War One. This film was on TCM several weeks ago and I sat watching it, riveted, even while it was extremely difficult to do so. I think this movie benefits from its age; you can tell that it was made by the same generation that experienced the first World War. And of course all the battle scenes would be computer-generated if the film were made today, which would transition it into video-game territory and rob it of its humanistic power.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

So there you have it:  my top ten list of historical films–for now.  This was tough; I think I would come up with a different list next week, or maybe even tomorrow.  All comments and suggestions are more than welcome (even for war films): the list is always subject to substitutions.

Christmas with Barbara

I love classic films, so naturally my favorite television channel is Turner Classic Movies:  I often have it on in the background when I’m home, as you never know what–or who–might turn up!  This month, I have to admit that it’s been on even more than usual, as December’s “Star of the Month” is Barbara Stanwyck, my very favorite movie star.  No one comes close to Barbara in her ability to fill the screen and capture her audience’s attention, in my opinion; certainly no actor or actress in the present (a time when movie stars seem much smaller), and perhaps only Cary Grant and Bette Davis in the past. I love everything about Barbara:  her toughness and her vulnerability, her flexibility, her stature, her walk, her ability to sit a horse, her little cropped jackets, her obvious professionalism. There is a sense of inner “simmering” in her that I find captivating, and I think she chose her roles very well. I find even her early 1930s movies–in which she seems to be playing the same downtrodden character again and again–watchable, but she really comes into her own in the 1940s, when she became the highest paid woman in America.

Barbara 1940s

Miss Stanwyck at the height of her power and popularity, Billy Rose Theater Collection, New York Public Library Digital Collection.

Two of my favorite Stanwyck films happen to be Christmas movies: Remember the Night (1940) and Christmas in Connecticut (1945). For as long as I can remember, I have generally watched both at least once during the holiday season, but this particular month I seem to be watching them again and again, so many times that I almost feel like I’m having Christmas with Barbara!



I think most people have heard of or seen Christmas in Connecticut, and it is certainly a wonderful film with a charming Barbara (and a great supporting cast), but she is even more endearing in Remember the Night.  This movie, the first of what I think were three pairings with Fred MacMurray, shows the actress in transition from her 1930s vulnerability to her 1940s confidence:  she is both sad and funny, tough and vulnerable, skittish and resolute. MacMurray plays a New York City Assistant District Attorney who prosecutes Stanwyck’s shoplifter character in a Christmas Eve trial:  when he realizes 1) that the joyful jury will let her off in a collective display of Christmas spirit; and 2) that she is a fellow Hoosier, he postpones the trial until the New Year, bails her out of jail, and offers to drive her home to Indiana for the holidays as he is heading home himself (you have to suspend some  judgement here). On the way west, back to the country, they have various escapades and encounters that bring them closer together. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when they arrive at her childhood home and face her dreadful mother; Fred will not let her stay there and he whisks her away to his own mother, the polar-opposite perfect mom, played, of course, by Beulah Bondi, Mrs. Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life!  On the farm, they celebrate Christmas the old-fashioned way and fall in love, always knowing that they’re going to have to go back to the big city, and the big trial, after the holidays. And they do: neither compromises their principles or their admiration for one another and so the “resolution” of the film provides a nice contrast to more predictable Christmas fare, including Christmas in Connecticut.


Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray look over their scripts with director Mitchell Leisen in this behind-the-scenes shot, TCM Archives.

Actually, as I write this, I am realizing that there is a major similarity between Remember the Night and Christmas in Connecticut:  in both films a very urban Barbara has got to go to the country and experience an “old-fashioned” Christmas (complete with country dances in both films) in order to find herself. In Christmas, Barbara plays a Martha Stewart-like character named Elizabeth Lane who writes a monthly column about her bucolic married life in Connecticut, including elaborate menus for perfect home-cooked meals. The problem, which doesn’t become a problem until her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) forces her to entertain a war hero named Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) for the holidays, is that Elizabeth Lane is actually a single “career woman” who lives in a New York City apartment and relies on local restauranteur Felix Bassenak (a perfect S.Z. Sakall) for both her daily sustenance and recipes for her column. She cooks up a scheme with her editor, Felix, and her long-suffering architect beau (Reginald Gardner), whom she promises to marry in exchange for his perfect Connecticut country house, which becomes the setting for their deception. The house is so perfect, with its vaulted ceilings, picture window, and huge stone fireplace, that it is almost a character in the film. In crystalline Connecticut, many situations ensue, involving babies, a cow named Mecushla (there’s a big cow scene in Remember the Night as well), flapjacks, a horse-drawn sleigh, and rocking chairs, and in the midst of all this Elizabeth/Barbara and her war hero fall in love. It is 1945, it is Christmas, and all is well.

barbara 036

barbara 043

barbara 060

Barbara in my bedroom:  facing her architect fiancé (“when you’re kissing me, don’t talk about plumbing”), facing the war hero seconds later, and in her perfect little cropped Christmas jacket.

Winter Solstice

Today is the Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere), marking the shortest day and the longest night of the year, when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky. The Latin word refers to the “stoppage” of the sun, as it appears to hover at this low point for several days, and certainly this was recognized as an important time, both before and after the coming of Christianity. Indeed, the solstice often appears on medieval calendars as a “red-letter day”, so important that it was written in red ink. As you can see on this December psalter calendar, the only two red-letter days are those when the sun moves into Capricorn and the winter solstice.  Even the nativity–Christmas Day–is written in black ink.

Solstice 1030

This calendar also illustrates another convention of medieval Christianity:  the overlay of Christian holidays (holy days) on pagan ritual days. The Winter Solstice is recognized as the winter solstice, but also as the day of St. Thomas the Apostle, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, who first doubted the resurrection of Christ and later compensated for this doubt by spreading the good news far and white, certainly outside the Roman Empire, perhaps as far as India. My casual survey of a sampling of psalters from the twelfth century on revealed that St. Thomas gradually replaced the solstice as a red-letter day, but medieval scribes still recognized the importance of the waxing, waning, and “hovering” sun in other ways and texts. The sun seems to get more vivid with the centuries, and even becomes quite humanistic with the Renaissance!

Solstice BL MS Arundel

Solstice Royal MS

Solstice Morgan ms

Solstice Sloane

British Library MSS Arundel 60 (after 1073) and Royal 17 E VII (14th century:  God creating the sun and the moon); Here come the sun:  Pierpont Morgan Library MS M. 14 (late 15th century) and BL MS Sloane 1171 (sixteenth century).

The Winter Solstice returns to modern calendars, sometimes with St. Thomas and sometimes not, and achieves recognition as a natural day in the seasonal year.  There’s something both reverent and hopeful about the day, as we know that the trend towards more darkness will be gradually reversed in the coming days and months.

Solstice Kate Greenaway 1891

Winter Solstice 1971 by Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975

In typical traditional fashion, Kate Greenaway sticks with St. Thomas’s Day in her 1892 Almanac (NYPL Digital Gallery), while British modern artist Barbara Hepworth depicts the Winter Solstice in a more graphic way (Tate Museum, 1971).

Fathers, Friends, Neighbors & Artists

While the Peabody Essex Museum continues to mount blockbuster exhibitions, there are more intimate exhibits at smaller venues here in Salem. The Salem Athenaeum and the KensingtonStobart Gallery are currently featuring shows that focus on relationships:  The Good Father (with some exceptions) is the Athenaeum’s Fall/Winter exhibition, and Artist Friends and Neighbors is on view at the Kensington-Stobart until December 2nd. Both exhibitions emphasize proximity, in different ways, and you can also get very close to the texts, images and artwork.

The Good Father was assembled by Elaine von Bruns, the “honorary” curator of a succession of Athenaeum exhibitions. A variety of fathers–from literary, artistic, and political realms, as well as the animal kingdom–are represented by both texts and images from the Athenaeum’s vast, venerable and diverse collection. There are early editions of Hawthorne and Melville on display as well as eulogies for the father or our country bound for the Athenaeum in 1800. Several classic illustrated editions are on view; though he was not a particularly good father, I particularly loved Fritz Eichenberg’s image of Heathcliff from the 1943 Random House edition of Wuthering Heights.

Good and bad fathers at the Salem Athenaeum:  Swedish artist Carl Larsson (1853-1919) and his daughter on the exhibit poster, pages from editions of Cheaper by the Dozen (1948), A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young (1924), Hamlet, and Wuthering Heights (1943).

For me, the Artists Friends and Neighbors exhibit  is a perfect blend of past and present inspirations and associations. Most of the exhibiting artists are friends of mine, and as the exhibition title implies, friends and neighbors to one another. An assemblage of work by Salem artists working today is also evocative of the circle of Salem artists who were friends and neighbors a century ago, many of which I’ve written about here:  Frank Benson, Philip Little, Ross Turner, Isaac Henry Caliga, Jesse Lewis Bridgman. It was quite the cultural milieu a century ago, and it is exciting to see echoes of this cumulative creativity now.  The curator of the exhibit, Jim McAllister, will be giving a gallery talk on this very topic on November 27. And quite apart from the historical inspiration, the exhibition is a lively display of very diverse talents and influences, with works in just about every medium from the participating artists:  Charlie Allen, Katy Bratun, David Decker, Julie Shaw Lutts, Barbara Burgess Maier, Trip Mason, and Racket Shreve. Whenever possible, click on the link so you can see these artists’ works for yourselves (or visit the gallery):  I couldn’t get images of everyone’s work and those images I did get do not do justice to the actual pieces.

Selections from Artist Friends & Neighbors:  Corpus Domini by Charlie Allen (oil on canvas); The Dictionary Series by Julie Shaw Lutts (encaustic collage); two very different fish by Katy Bratun; photographs by Trip Mason (please check out his portfolio here–photographs of photographs taken at night never come out very well!) and 81 Essex Street by Racket Shreve. I’ve included a photograph of the actual house for contrast.  Apologies to Mr. Decker and Ms. Maier–my pictures of their work were far too flashy.

Artist Friends and Neighbors, through December 2, Kensington-Stobart Gallery, 18 Washington Square West (in the Hawthorne Hotel), Salem, Massachusetts.

The Good Father, Salem Athenaeum, 337 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts.

Places, Past, Present

I’ve been thinking about a short little article by BBC “History of the World” presenter Andrew Marr about the five most historical places in world history quite a bit since I came across it a few days ago. I love lists, I love history, understanding and developing a strong sense of place has always been important to me (it’s one of the major themes of this blog), and I teach world history:  Marr has my rapt attention!

His choices are based on a world history perspective, but I think one of his historical places betrays his British bias, or maybe not:  I’ll discuss below. Here are his picks:

1. The Great Rift Valley in eastern Africa: where human civilization first emerged. A pretty predictable choice, and certainly one that is difficult to contest!

2. The Yellow River:  China’s “mother river”, where its first civilization emerged.  I’m not sure why Marr is privileging China above other world civilizations:  he does not have Mesopotamia, the western “cradle of civilization” on his list.

3. Athens, Greece:  symbol of the Classical Age. I suppose this is Marr’s concession to ancient western civilization, and I think he feels sorry for present-day Greece.  But it’s another obvious choice:  rational philosophy, democracy, theater, architecture, the Olympics–I could go on.

Ok, now we take a huge chronological jump:  from the 5th century BC to the eighteenth century. There is no amazingly significant place which has medieval (or as the world historians say, post-classical) relevance?  This seems like a very Renaissance view.

4. Berkeley, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom:  the birthplace of Dr. Edward Jenner (1749-1823), who discovered the vaccination for smallpox.  This is the only British place on the list (not London!) and Marr is a presenter for the BBC, so I thought it was a rather biased choice, but now I’m not so sure.  Smallpox was a terrible disease, which killed millions of people in the New World and remained an endemic plague in the Old, and Jenner’s vaccination was an amazing empirical breakthrough.  I think smallpox is the only disease in world history which has been completely eradicated, and that makes Jenner a towering figure both in the history of medicine and the history of civilization. Nevertheless, I think one of the five most important places in world history has to be more than the birthplace of just one person, however great he or she was.

5. Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States of America:  birthplace of the atomic bomb and the Atomic Age.  A great choice:  it’s sad that this is the American contribution to the list, but there you are. If you only have five places to choose of relevance in world history, you’ve got to go with the most consequential.

This is a great list but I think there are a few places I would change.  It’s so difficult to choose, because the list is short and the history is long–and complex.  Obviously there are countless historical places; in fact, every place is historical.  Choosing just five places is an exercise in frustration, but also one in prioritization, which is always useful. On my list, the Yellow River would be replaced by a city along the Silk Road that connected China and the Middle East and disseminated so many Chinese innovations, for better or for worse:  textiles, gunpowder, printing, the compass.  Maybe Samarkand or Bukhara, both currently in Uzbekistan, but symbolizing the West’s desire to obtain the knowledge and goods of the East.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan:  Silk Road “Port”.

I considered Istanbul, Venice, and Rome, ports along the western African “slave coast”, and New York, but dismissed them all on relative criteria–basically my western bias.  But I cannot dismiss Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world and a holy place for three world religions.  In my mind, there is no doubt that Jerusalem is one of the most important places in world history, so at least one of Marr’s places has got to go. What do you think?


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