Peacockery

The peacock has captured the imagination of artists for millennia. It is an interesting bird, with the female, like so many in nature, being unadorned, but the male possessing upper tail feathers that spread out into a fan when it displays itself as part of a courtship process. Studies have shown that peahens are, indeed, attracted to the most lavishly embellished males, an extreme example of how the sexual urge has influenced evolution in the natural world. And the bird is an astonishing sight to behold. While its call is unimpressive -calling to mind a demented and slightly disgruntled cat- a peacock in its glory is an absolutely magnificent spectacle. The photograph below pictures a peacock wooing a peahen though the latter seems rather disinterested.

Image

Given its visual draw, the bird possessed incredibly ancient and rich symbolism. In Greek mythology, it was associated with the goddess Hera, who took the eyes from the hundred-eyed Argus and transposed them to the bird’s tail, so that she could spy on her serially unfaithful spouse (and brother), Zeus. Her priestesses used peacock fans in their temple rituals. Given the bird’s own fertility activities, it isn’t surprising that the animal was held to be a symbol of marriage. In the east, the bird was particularly associated with the sun, doubtless because of the shape of its tail, and also with royalty, probably because huge fans always were a royal marker and, again, a suggestion of the fan-shaped tailed. These fans or flabella generally used ostrich feathers and their use in royal courts survived at least three millennia until the 1960s, when last used in papal ceremonies (below – flanking Pius XII in the 1950s), before being discontinued by the liturgically hopeless and historically illiterate Paul VI (whose reign from 1963 to 1978 is a byword for failure). All is not lost, however, since Orthodox and Eastern Catholics still use a stylized version of the fan made out of precious metals in their ceremonial.

Image

This royal use is very curious since it developed out of the rather banal fan being used for the pedestrian need to provide circulation and dissuade flies. Not to be outdone, Christianity appropriated the avian symbolism, with St Augustine carrying on Aristotle’s thesis that peacock flesh was incorruptible, giving rise to the bird’s association with immortality as well as its magnificence being linked to the glories of paradise, and the Blessed Virgin in particular, who was free from the contagion of original and actual sin and whose flesh was not subject to bodily decay as she was assumed into Heaven. Thus, in the Adoration of the Magi, dating from c. 1450 and painted by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi (below), we see peacocks on the stable roof at Bethlehem as a visual reminder that the gift of this child to humanity is the possibility of eternal life, though their presence on the roof also serves to denote that the salvation that they represent must be invited to enter under our roof, a biblical metaphor for our bodies housing our immortal soul.

Image

However, Christian use of the bird has decidedly mixed signals as it has also been used by moralists as an example of the sin of human pride and attachment to riches, with the bird’s mating ritual being held up as a trope for the excesses of lust and vainglory. We become, in the words of the aphorism, as proud as a peacock. Alas, some Christians have neutralized wonderful symbols in such a way throughout history. I remember seeing some beautiful mosaics that dated from the 2nd and 3rd centuries in Cyprus, but the ones found in Christian homes on the same site and from the same period were deadly dull, lifeless, and austere. Alchemy resisted any such negative connotations; the moment when mercury turns into gold, that supreme second in an alchemist’s life, is called the cauda pavonis, Latin for the peacock’s tail.

Fortunately, the peacock was fully rehabilitated in the nineteenth century. Rather than assent to the dominant cultural puritanism, artists during the Art Nouveau movement exulted in and exulted this glorious bird. The apotheosis of this trend is James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room, which he re-designed in 1876 and 1877 to showcase the Chinese porcelain collection of a rich industrialist (below). This is definitely a case of the frame outshining the painting, and like the bird itself, it was not to be outdone by its surroundings.

Image

For my part, I’ve always loved this fair fowl and remember playing with peacock feathers in a vase when I was a small boy. My living room has a subdued pavonine theme with a couple of rugs, some specially commissioned chair cushions, and the Japanese silk wall scroll, or Kakejiku (pictured below). This was hand-painted by an artist named Baisai in 1918. I love coming home to this (it’s close to the door).

Image

The peacock carried on as a motif during the Art Deco period, with a particular prominence in jewellery, particularly for women, and there are some haunting examples of peacock brooches from the first half of the twentieth century. Their use in male jewellery is quite rare, perhaps because of their paradoxical use in female adornment, given the intricate beauty of the feathers.

Image

Today’s cufflinks are an unusual example of an uncommon theme (in men’s jewellery, that is). They are made out of 830 silver with a gold wash that gives a very slight suggestion of bi-colouration and the blueish-silver hue of the bird’s plumage. They are not marked but almost certainly date from the 1920s and from Denmark, as the detail of the etching and natural design place it to the Skønvirke, or beautiful work artistic movement, which produced some stunning cufflinks during this period. Denmark is, for all purposes, the real cradle of artistically interesting cufflinks, holding this mantle until other Scandinavian countries excelled in modernist silver jewellery, from the 1950s to the present day. I am somewhat partial to this pair and to the bird to which they allude, for I think that is important to forge our own values in life’s journey, rather than blandly accepting that such a gorgeous animal could possibly denote unattractive flaws. French, as it often does, beats English on this score. Rather than the singularly snide verb to strut, peacocks, and by extension people who want to show themselves or something off, faire la roue or display their wheel. Merci, ma chère langue française !

Advertisements

Solar potency

Of all of the historical figures that I would rather like to dine with, Louis XIV invariably heads the list, dependent on my mood. He was a fascinating character, someone whom, while not intellectually brilliant, intuitively understood the mechanisms of power. Not unlike Margaret Thatcher, in this respect. He was also a deeply paradoxical man. He was adept at making the social codes of etiquette and dress into instruments of his own power, and yet he steadfastly refused to become involved in any disputes of precedence among courtiers at Versailles and always preferred to eat with his hands rather than use implements. Complex, and sometimes bizarre, rules governed the royal court. The embittered Duc de Saint-Simon details in his memoirs the “war of the stools” concerning the right of certain ladies to be seated on a small, backless stool in the presence of the Queen, with other women having to indecorously stand throughout the proceedings. Fights over the occupancy of a stool sometimes became physical. This modest item of furniture is emblematic of the sheer futility of human ambition, being invested with such passion over what is, when all said and done, a rather uncomfortable seat. Not only that, because of the dwarfish size of the tabourets, it was really impossible to sit down on and stand up from one with any degree of dignity or decorum.

Image

Louis XIV might have inherited much of the court ceremonial, but one thing which he very much made his own was the presentation of his image. Few leaders in history have ever been so able at self-promotion and propaganda than this king, with the exceptions, perhaps, of the Emperor Augustus and Adolf Hitler. Famously, one of the earliest and most cultivated metaphors that he chose for himself was as the Sun-King, presenting himself as Apollo, the god of light and the sun. The monicker of Le Roi-Soleil was first formulated in 1653 when Louis, a handsome and athletic young monarch who was not yet 20 years old, choreographed the “Ballet de la nuit” [Ballet of the night], dancing the lead role and with the music written by the brilliant and ambitious Jean-Baptiste Lully. A very watchable and largely accurate reconstruction of this dance may be viewed here, an extract from the highly recommended movie Le Roi danse (2000).

Image

As well as displaying his dancing skills and showcasing the talent of his court artists, Louis XIV also used the occasion as a moment of spectacular visual power. A few months earlier had seen the end of the French civil war called the Fronde (1648-53), which had nearly brought down the monarchy itself. The stakes were real, considering that the English Parliament had murdered its king during the same period. The momentum of war had petered out, and people started to crave stability again, for better and for worse. In other words, the monarchy had triumphed. Louis used the dance to have a young member from each of the prominent families who had rebelled during the civil war kneel in homage to “Apollo”, but in reality to the French Crown, as part of the performance. It was an incredible act of propaganda and confirmed that the young man was of a different mould from his father, Louis XIII, who had a series of unedifying crushes on attractive male favourites, mostly utterly unworthy of any preferment and some of whom who would delight in humiliating the sovereign in public, something the king evidently encouraged. It was also a more successful occasion than the later Carrousel du Louvre in 1662, a public festival to mark the birth of the dauphin. Louis dressed as a rooster, symbolizing the French nation, and this was met with some ridicule. Still, the official depictions of the occasion were able to airbrush this unique lapse in taste and portrayed Louis dressed as a more fetching Roman emperor rather than the humble cockerel.

Image

Solar symbolism is universal and may be found in virtually every religion, with some placing a particular emphasis on the sun. In Christianity, there are very deep uses of the sun with the word halo used in religious iconography being derived from Helios, the Greek personification of the sun. In Orthodoxy, the halo, which is obviously a form of the sun, is often christianized from its pagan origins through the use of a cross, as above. Traditionally, the main altar and therefore the elevation of a church faces the east, towards the rising sun which represents Christ coming in glory, with the priest celebrating Mass and all of the congregation facing this direction. It is a pity that the sloppy post-Vatican II practice of the priest facing the people is such a thoughtless, unhistorical, and symbolically barren phenomenon.

The sun is, for me, a two-edged icon. On one hand, it brings light, warmth, and life itself. Yet, as the solar appropriation by Louis XIV demonstrates, the sun can also symbolize oppressive heat, creating deserts and inhospitable conditions, and the sun demands that we always know that we are its mere and temporary subjects. I do not care for summer. I find that it is the vulgar season; winter brings snow, ice, and ice-storms that can transform the most banal of landscapes into a mysterious fairy-tale kingdom. Spring gifts us the blossoming metamorphoses that represent hope. Autumn dazzles us with its colours and changes. But summer brings us only heat, and enslaves us by this very thing. It suffices to speak to sun-worshippers and summer lovers -most people in point of fact- to appreciate how widespread solar fanaticism is among the populace.

Image

There is a very poignant moment in the Japanese movie The Sun (2005). The Emperor Showa, known as Hirohito during his lifetime, has to meet with General Douglas MacArthur following Japan’s defeat by allied forces in 1945 (pictured above, their respective poses and dress being highly revealing). When Hirohito arrived at allied headquarters and is led to the MacArthur’s room, he stands and waits for a while. The American soldier stationed outside of MacArthur’s office finally understands: the Emperor has never opened a door by himself in his entire life since servants have always done this for he, and he doesn’t know how to. As part of  the American conditions imposed on post-war Japan, Hirohito, who was an expert marine biologist, was obliged to renounce his divinity (it has recently been revealed that MacArthur was a secret lifelong monarchist, a fact that may have saved the Japanese monarchy from abolition, as seemed completely inevitable until MacArthur’s mission). Hirohito fulfilled this requirement in a very ambivalent, oblique manner that passed largely unnoticed in Japan but which made headlines in the West. The current Emperor, Akihito, chose to make the traditional communion ceremony with the sun goddess, Amaterasu, when he was installed as sovereign in 1989. This was a very surprising decision and one to which he held fast, revealing that, like his father, he believes that he is a descendant of the sun deity. Clearly, solar iconography still burns brightly.

Image

Today’s cufflinks were made by the Danish jewellery firm Anton Michelsen and bear its maker’s mark on the stems. Their material is sterling silver -the cufflinks are heavy- with a central solar indentation having a gold-washed surface that has aged in an interesting way. Michelsen concentrated largely on ceramic-based jewel creations after 1968, when it was taken over by Royal Copenhagen, a ceramic firm, indicating that this item dates to the early to late 1960s. I like the craftsmanship of these cufflinks but, most of all, love the dominance of the silver and the fragility of the golden core, a singular refusal of solar tyranny.

The singular beauty of copper

I have already mentioned on this blog that I find copper to be more beautiful than gold. This is more than an opinion; I regard it as an objective observation. The distinctive orange-red hue of pure copper is patently more vibrant and richer than the highest grade of gold. Moreover, when copper ages, the verdant patina is an incredible metamorphosis of the metal’s surface and I have left this green patina intact when it has developed on my copper candlesticks. A famous example of the beauty of this process is to be found in the Statue of Liberty. The image below shows how this landmark has aged.

Image

Unlike gold, which has many historical and allegorical associations with human greed (such as Midas), copper has a very positive background indeed. The Ancient Egyptians used it in water piping and for sterilized equipment, and let us not forget that the Scots opted for copper vessels in the whisky-distillation process, a practice that has continued unabated for the past twelve centuries. The photograph below (courtesy of ABC) shows copper whisky stills at the Talisker Distillery on the Isle of Skye. It is interesting that the beverage has a coppery colour at the end of the process. Everyone who likes cooking knows the appeal of copper implements, though I can never bring myself to use my copper kettle and copper colander, as I don’t want to taint them in any way.

Image

Along with its functionality – a quality that sets it apart from gold – copper has long associations with healing, being used by both the Greeks and Romans as a medication. Indeed, a modern company, Cupron, is dedicated to copper technology and its benefits. There is a strong connection between the metal and love, perhaps owing to the fact that the major source of copper for the Romans was the island of Cyprus, the birthplace of Venus and indeed the term for copper in Latin and English is a corruption of the island’s name, the late Latin cuprum being a contraction of Cyprium. The alchemic symbol for the metal is the same as that for Venus: ♀. Many medieval legends of the Holy Grail portray the chalice as being made out of copper, an appropriation of the associations with love, since on Maundy Thursday the liturgy includes the haunting hymn “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” [Where there is love, there God is], a piece of plainchant that possibly dates to the 4th century AD/CE. It is worth taking two minutes to listen to a portion of music that has inspired countless people across the centuries, here. I am also partial to Maurice Duruflé’s 20th-century version, which is both respectful to the original but also injects it with a very subtle and muted undercurrent of vibrancy. An older religious manifestation of copper is to be seen in the bronze doors of the Temple of Jerusalem, bronze being an alloy primarily composed of copper with the addition of tin.

Image

Today’s pair of cufflinks are relatively modern but are deeply imbued with copper’s long history. They are made out of sterling silver with a central, dominant core of brushed copper. They were designed by Glenn Roll, a renowned Swedish designer, being commissioned to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Stora Kopparberg (Great Copper Mountain), a copper mining company in Falun, Sweden, in 1988. The mine sadly ceased production in 1992, though now operates as a museum. Since it once produced two-thirds of Europe’s copper needs, Sweden’s historical prosperity is very much based on this mine. The copper disks used in the cufflink faces are made out of copper extracted from the mine itself. They bear Gustav Dahlgren’s maker’s mark and the backs have an interesting shape with the occasion of the anniversary engraved on them (below).

Image

I love this pair, both for the design and for the metals used. The design is robustly industrial, and the shape suggests a key to me, which is appropriate for this mine given how much it contributed to the making of Sweden. It also evokes, at least to me, the allure of copper itself. Not obvious faced with the wide-scale brainwashing of gold’s charms to which we are all subject. Since gladiators used to wear copper cuffs, I also am very seduced by the (loose) association of wearing this ravishing metal in the form of cufflinks.

Thistly icon

When I was aged 18 years old, not that very long ago, I spent a year in Paris where I learnt French at the Alliance Française (with a wonderfully imperious teacher called Madame Giani) and lived and worked in a church called Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, rendered Saint Nicholas of the Thistlefield in English, chardon being thistle. This name did not derive from any hagiographical legend involving miraculous occurrences with thistles, somewhat sadly, but referred to the area having once been populated with thistles before Paris’s urban sprawl devoured it. Today, still the feast of St Andrew as I write this, is an apposite date on which to contemplate the thistle, for just as St Andrew is the patron saint and protector of Scotland so is the thistle its national symbol.

Image

The thistle is a curious choice as a national symbol for it is not particularly beautiful and it not only grows wild but is also often deemed to be a weed. There is a charming legend about its selection as the Scots’ emblem which relates that, at the Battle of Largs in 1263, the Norse invaders planned a surprise nocturnal attack on the camp of the Scots, while the latter were asleep. The Norsemen were barefoot to aid in their covert and sneaky strategy when one unfortunate soldier stepped on a thistle and cried out in pain, his shrieks awakening the Scots who successfully repulsed and defeated the Norse troops. The King of the Scots at this battle and who subsequently adopted the plant for his nation, Alexander III, met a less romantic end in 1286: he accidentally rode his horse over a cliff in the fog, breaking his neck.

Image

The thistle is ubiquitous in Scotland and may be found everywhere, from sporting-club logos to items of jewellery. My maternal grandmother, who was half Scottish, had a gorgeous silver brooch in the form of a thistle with an amethyst for the flower. Scotland’s highest honour is the Order of the Thistle, and the photograph above shows the Duke of Cambridge being installed as an officer in the Order this summer, pictured with his aunt, the Princess Royal. The thistle also possesses religious iconography; along with many other plants with spines, it stands for Christ’s crucifixion, with the beautiful flower being an allegory for the salvation obtained by His pains and death.

Image

Albrecht Dürer painted himself in 1493, aged 22 years old, holding some thistles in his hands (above; currently in the Louvre). Art historians believe this to be an engagement pose with the thistles symbolizing marital fidelity. This is most likely because of the same reason for which they are associated with longevity in China, namely that they retain their shape even if dried out, the recognizable and unique form that they have.

Personally, I am very fond of the thistle. Part of this is subjective, for I was brought up in the north of England only 12 miles from the border with Scotland, and I have loved my many explorations of this beautiful nation, particularly the Hebrides. Yet there are also more solid factors underpinning my penchant for this prickly plant. Firstly, the green and purple combination is a very visually stunning one. Secondly, and more importantly, is the classification of the thistle as a weed. As every botanist knows, what separates a plant from a weed is the 3 Ps: plant, place, perception. It is deemed to be a weed because it grows where it is unwanted, among cultivated plants. And what a rich metaphor that is. This plant is the very symbol of independence, having developed thorns to protect itself yet displaying a unique-shaped deep purple flower, and, most of all, resisting human efforts to control and domesticate it. After all, how many weeds function as royal, national, artistic, and religious symbols?

Image

The curves of today’s cufflinks very much evoke the thistle to me. This pair has a shadowbox-style construction and is made out of sterling silver, which has produced a very interesting matted oxidization over seven or eight decades giving a varied grey hue. They hail from Mexico and bear the maker’s mark of “C. MOLINA”, a silversmith who worked in Guadalajara and whose other cufflinks involve similarly elaborate patterns. Much of this artist’s work was produced during the 1930s and 1940s and the martyrdom symbolism of the thistle might not therefore be a random choice, for Catholics faced heavy persecution and there were thousands of deaths at the hands of the Mexican authorities during this period. Once again, this humble weed rears its subversive head.