Tag Archives: Symbols

Allegorical Arrows

Historical imagery often contains symbols and emblems that we don’t understand:  we must learn to read them; whereas a contemporary audience could simply see them and understand the message within. I enjoy teasing out the meanings behind images from the past both here and in class–though here I’ve got a bit more creative freedom, and can chart the evolution of images all the way up to the present, when they have often lost their associations and exist simply as images. A great case in point (literally) is the simple and straightforward arrow: once I’ve swept away my seasonal decorations at home I’m often left with a bunch of arrows here and there as they are seasonless, timeless, and largely meaningless: I simply like their form. This is an Americana week for several auction houses, and yesterday as I was perusing the digital catalog for an important auction of folk art at Sotheby’s (The History of Now: The Important American Folk Art Collection of David Teiger|Sold to Benefit Teiger Foundation for the Support of Contemporary Art) all I could see was arrows, which for the most part had assumed their modern directional meaning on myriad weathervanes.

artful arrows horse weathervane

artful arrows diana the huntress sothebys

artful arrows soaring bird sothebys

artful arrows goddess of liberty sothebysPrancing Horse, Diana the Huntress, Soaring Bird, and the Goddess of Liberty weathervanes from the Teiger collection, Sotheby’s.

Another lot in this same auction is an incredible later nineteenth-century Chinese wall plaque representing the Great Seal of the United States, with the emblazoned bald eagle clutching a cluster of arrows in his left talon—thirteen to be exact, representing the thirteen colonies, but also strength through unity. There is an explicit sense of martial strength on display as well, projected through the contrast with the olive branch in the eagle’s right talon. The Great Seal’s designer, Charles Thompson, was influenced in his use of arrows by other confederations such as the Iroquois (with their five nations) and the Dutch Republic (with its seven provinces) as well as by early modern emblem books such as Joachim Camerarius’s Symbola et Emblemata (1590-1604), merely substituting them for the more classical lightening bolts.

artful arrows chinese eagle sotheby's folk art auction 20 jan

Obverse Great Seal.tif

arrows symbols 16th c.The Chinese Great Seal and Charles Thompson’s original sketch, US National Archives; Joachim Camerarius, Symbola et Emblemata.

Emblem books are one of the rabbit holes of early modern literature, as you will see if you go here: but you can also find many arrows, representing not only military force, but also time and inevitable mortality, flight, children (Psalm 127), punishment, and of course love, when in one of the countless cupids’ bows. Medieval arrows are never ambiguous: they represent force and violent death in general, and martyrdom in particular. Saint Sebastian (died 288) and King Edmund the Martyr (d. 869) were both attacked by hordes of pagan/heathen archers, and so often depicted as shot so full of arrows they resemble porcupines; arrows remained their essential attributes as their cults developed over the medieval era. In the later medieval era, Sebastian re-emerged as the most popular plague saint, as the arrow came to symbolize the plague itself: the most dramatic expression of this motif is a fourteenth-century fresco on the wall of the former Benedictine Abbey of Saint-André-de-Lavauadieu in France, depicting a faceless woman armed with the arrows of plague and her pierced victims all around her.

arrow 2 collage

love removed

arrows of black death

arrows pub

Some early modern arrow emblems: “Ich fliehe sehr schnell”– Fly far and fast; “Vis nescia vinci”–force cannot be overcome with force; “Supplicio laus tuta semel”—he that was worthy of praise was one free from punishment; Cupid holds up the world: “Sublato Amore Omnia Ruunt“–When Love is Removed, All things tumble down; the Lavaudieu fresco, and a street sign in Bury St. Edmunds, bearing the three arrow-crossed crowns that have come to symbolize the Anglo-Saxon king Edmund the Martyr.

Back to the future: I guess arrows are just arrows, or mundane symbols telling us where to go, BUT who knew there was a hidden arrow in the FedEx logo? Not me.

arrows collage

arrow fed ex

Mid-century textile design by Tommi Parzinger, Cooper-Hewitt Museum.

 


Holding the Sun

I suppose I should be writing about the (super)moon, but yesterday I became captivated by the sun: not the real sun, but a stylized image of a sun in the hands of a “medieval” king on a very cool chair by the twentieth-century Italian architect and designer Paolo Buffa. Said chair, with its mate, was featured in the pages of T: the New York Times Style Magazine yesterday, in an article on French designer Vincent Darré’s whimsical Paris apartment. There’s always something that catches my eye in this well-curated periodical, and this weekend it was the Buffa chair, or more particularly the image on the back of the chair: I tried to find its source–to no avail; I suppose Buffa must have sketched it himself–it looks “traditional” and “modern” at the same time, like many of his designs.

Darre apt Buffa Chairs

Darre Study

The Buffa chair in Mr. Darré’s study, in multiples: photograph by François Halard for T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

I love this chair! I want this chair! But I imagine it’s well outside of my price range (a pair of much less distinct chairs is priced at $5500 here), so after considering the style for a while I moved on to the substance. Because of its obvious splendor, the sun has been utilized by kings and queens projecting their power and magnificence from time immemorial and all areas of the world. The sun is generally utilized as a visual reference–either as accessible symbol or allegorical emblem–but it is actually held, or brought to earth, surprisingly seldom. It takes bravado to do that, like that exhibited characteristically by the Sun King, Louis XIV. From early on in his reign he utilized the sun in myriad ways: basking in its beams, driving its chariot, holding and eventually evolving into it. He was identified as the sun by both his supporters and his enemies–among them the persecuted and exiled Huguenots of France who projected him as a sun-inquisitor following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Sun King Ballet Costumer 1660s

Sun King Protestant Perspective Nantes

Sun King Indictments LC

Louis XIV  in the costume of The Sun King in the ballet ‘La Nuit’ c.1665; Protestant caricature of King Louis XIV as inquisitor, illustration from ‘Les Heros de La Ligue ou La Procession monacale, conduite par Louis XIV, pour la conversion des protestants de son royaume’, Paris, Chez Pere Peters, a l’Enseigne de Louis Le Grand, 1691; Calendar of Indictments against Louis XIV, 1706, Library of Congress.

But sun symbolism was not always so straightforward, and certainly not in the seventeenth century, when it could represent not only a king and his mastery of all before him, but also faith and reason: the light of both spiritual and scientific understanding. In the very important emblem book of Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), the sun goes dark when held in the hand of a philosopher who has abandoned his faith for false theories while conversely another woman–from a bit later in the century, after Galileo’s very public defense of heliocentrism–holds the sun-light of understanding in her hand.

Sun Emblem

“Lacking Light”, Georgette de Montenay, Cent emblemes chrestiens (1615), Glasgow University Emblems website; A woman holds a sun in her hand; representing the faculty of understanding. Engraving by T. Jenner [?], c. 1650, Wellcome Library, London.


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