Stellar view

As a boy, I was fascinated with astronomy. I taught myself how to read the sky and greedily and obsessively devoured books on every aspect of the topic, eventually wanting to become an astronomer. That dream came to naught when I found out that I needed to be successful at physics, a subject that I found to be painful. One dream gave way to another and I replaced astronomical ambitions with metaphysical ones in a desire to become a priest. While these childhood hopes did not materialize, I have kept the breathless wonder of a clear night sky. When I was in Santa Fe in 2009, I rented a car in order to drive down to Roswell, about three hours south. It was essentially a wasted journey as there is nothing there other than a dubious reputation, but coming back on a deserted highway, I found myself having to stop the car on several occasions in order to drink in the outrageous prettiness of the pristine night sky, which seemed to taunt my mortality, as it has done to humans since time immemorial.

As the astronomy-bewitched boy that I was, I would often go out late at night with a friend from school, walking to some fields, then laying down to admire the stellar vault above our adolescent heads. We would quiz each other, enthuse each other, and occasionally annoy each other, but most of all we would lose ourselves in looking upwards. The clarity was absurdly pure, this being a rural spot in Cumbria, in the north of England, a locality where Roman soldiers would have paused to enjoy the same skyscape. Looking back on those nocturnal outings now, I realize that what we saw was, above all, reassuring, a desperately needed concept for a teenaged boy ravaged by the assault of hormones, self-doubt, and uncertainty.

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Courtesy of leontoh, Flickr

For as long as humans have looked longingly at the astral sky, they have also tried to make some sense of the apparent randomness in front of their eyes. The system of attributing patterns to stellar groupings is as old as civilization, with a current total of 88 constellations being recognized by the International Astronomical Union, 48 of these hailing from the mythological forms set out by Ptolemy 19 centuries ago, most of which were themselves based on a Greek work written six centuries before him. Astronomical knowledge was vital to assist in navigating across seas and a rich folklore was built up around this and about sea journeys in particular; the story of Jonah in the Old Testament and Homer’s epic Odyssey spring to mind. Sea journeys were, and still can be, perilous, and sailors sought protection in material and supernatural sources.

The Virgin Mary has a particular role in watching over sailors and is invoked as Stella Maris, or Star of the Sea, with another of her titles being Morning Star, an association that seems to be linked to the interpretation of Mary as being the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” spoken of in the Book of Revelation (12:1; Douay Rheims translation). The hauntingly beautiful plainchant hymn Ave Maris Stella, sung here by the monks of Solesmes, invokes Mary under this cosmic guise and, like the centuries of seafarers who have begged her assistance, asks that she guide us to steer a safe course to the light. The early fifteenth-century painting, below, is by Filippo Lippi, and is known as the Madonna and Child. Lippi was a Carmelite friar, an order that has a special devotion to Our Lady. Crucially, the infant Christ is naked thus is totally exposed and vulnerable, turned towards us, for whom He has become so weak and also because of us. The nudity reminds us that it is our sins who will ultimately have this child stripped to be flagellated, tortured, and suffer for us on the Cross. Yet, the consolation that the child, and we, have is shown in the star on Mary’s cloak, which calms and guides Him -and us. The painting boldly depicts the readiness of these two figures to welcome and help the spectator.

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Orion is perhaps the most recognizable constellation in the northern hemisphere. The Greeks and the Romans found that the formation of stars resembled the mythological hunter, carrying a club and with three stars forming the Belt of Orion. It is interesting that this cluster of stars is viewed as a human figure across different civilizations, though Spanish tradition sees the belt as the three Marys who are mentioned in the New Testament. The constellation is characteristic because of its relatively low placing in the sky and the fact that it features so many bright stars, not least of which is the reddish hued Betelgeuse. The constellation also benefits from being alongside Sirius, the brightest star in the firmament, which is in the diminutive constellation Canis Major, which depicts a hunting dog belonging to Orion by his feet. Sirius is also known as the Dog Star and has given rise to the very ancient expression dog days, referring to those sultry summer days during which the Dog Star is a constant nocturnal companion.

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For such an imposing stellar symbol, the choice of Orion is one of the greatest disappointments of the whole chart of the heavens. Orion was a hugely built hunter who found himself temporarily blinded when he drunkenly attempted to assault the daughter of the king of Chios. In other words, he was a muscular, boorish, sexual predator, the embodiment of an Alpha male, Greek pun intended. The French poet René Char (1907-1988) was somewhat obsessed with the character of Orion and once explained that he depicted Orion as someone to be found or chanced upon, that the reader might observe him on his journey, a confusing synthesis of the mythological hunter, the star-joined symbol, and the fictional figure that Char had created.

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Today’s cufflinks suggest Orion’s belt and sword to me (the sword in the constellation is not a star but rather the Orion Nebula). These are one of the most unusual pairs of cufflinks that I own, since there are so many quirky features. They are crafted out of sterling silver but the stars are made out of gold pins -it looks like solid 14ct gold), and all four of them have miniscule posts that penetrate the faces all the way through, as seen below in a shot taken by Samantha Howard, whose impeccable eye sourced these for me.

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The faces are ridged, and one side has jagged edges. There is the maker’s name of McKenzie stamped on the pair, which seems to be Jeannine and Charles McKenzie, a couple of designers who operate out of Michigan and I think this pair cannot be more than 20 years old. Their work subtly defies what one might expect out of jewellery and in this they are reaching for the stars rather than being content to gape at them. A rather nice place to be at, all in all.

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Cock of the walk

It has always interested me that the American equivalent of the British cockerel is rooster. Now, both are plainly quite ridiculous words that do not impart any degree of avian dignity but the most striking thing is that the two words are so markedly different from each other. Rooster derives from the verb to roost, of Norse origin. Cockerel originally referred to a young bird with the adult being cock. The slang word for a human male member is directly related to the bird, the idea being that the bird holds itself up proud and struts around, and is also adept at impregnating hens. Despite the English word resembling the French noun coq, there is no linguistic evidence of a common root, though life constantly provides examples that intuitively proves what empirical data cannot substantiate. After all, love is one of the central features of our lives, of our entire civilization, yet is a solidly unscientific and unquantifiable notion. The bird is a national symbol of France, an association that is, deliciously, based on a pun. The Latin for this galline creature is gallus with Gallia being France (as in Julius Caeser’s “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” . . . ), and the pun came about in the Middle Ages. It was in the aftermath of the French Revolution that the animal was assimilated in earnest as a national emblem, quite understandably so as an entirely new iconography was needed to replace the centuries old and profoundly deep-seated focus on the monarchy as the symbol of national unity. It is a prime example of the triumph of figurative value over reality, since the bird is an especially unappealing, undistinguished, and quite repulsive bird, insisting on its territory, strutting furiously, and quite literally ruling the roost. With no political intention in mind, I draw attention to the fact that it takes pride of place atop the gates to the President of the French Republic’s official residence, below, a palace that was once bought by Louis XV as a gift to his mistress, Madame de Pompadour.

ImageGiven its somewhat earthy reputation and its quite unedifying behaviour, it comes as a surprise to note that the rooster possesses wholesome spiritual connotations. In St John’s Gospel, Christ tells Peter that, despite his entreaties of loyalty, he will have denied him not once, not even twice, but thrice before the cock crows (John 13:37-38). According to tradition, Peter awoke every morning in tears for the rest of his life. Another legend embellishes this with the detail that the streams of the saint’s tears carved lachrymose lines into his face, a beautiful idea of guilt physically manifesting itself, whether true or no. In an age before alarm clocks, it served a practical function in marking the beginning of the day. Consequently, the animal represents vigilance and watchfulness, a trope that is best seen in its use as a weather vane, a reminder that we all need to be mindful of our actions, no matter where the wind blows, and all stand in readiness for the sudden return of Christ.

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The bird has become synonymous with French sports and gastronomy, not altogether disassociated in France given that Nutella was an official sponsor of the French national football team. One dish that has come to evoke France in public consciousness is coq au vin. It was really thanks to the efforts of Julia Child that the recipe has become so popular during the past six decades. Julia, however, rather naughtily substituted chicken for cockerel, a breach of history as well as making little gastronomical sense since the meat of the male bird is tougher and requires the oenophilic and chronological tenderizing for which the recipe calls. There is a clip of the inimitable Julia making the dish here. The British equivalent of the American cook was Fanny Cradock and, while the style of each TV chef differed enormously, both are united by a common love of French cuisine as well as being a staple subject of drag queens. There is a stupendous golden rooster in Le Train Bleu, the mythic Parisian restaurant and bar, proudly watching over this hallowed space. I took the image below on one of my visits there (for cocktails rather than food) a couple of years ago.

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Cock-fighting, a long and inglorious sport across the world, reveals more about humankind’s inhumanity than anything to do with the bird. A sad remnant of this horrendous sport occurred during World War I with the with the founding of the Order of the White Feather which encouraged women to pin a white feather on men to humiliate them for not being on the field of warfare and to publicly display their supposed cowardice, a phenomenon that features in the first episode of the second season of Downton Abbey. A superstition long held in cockfighting was that a bird sporting a white feather in its tail would not fare well in the ring. Sometimes the men that were targetted by the plume-donating zealots were legitimately absent from the war because of their ideology, disability, or protected profession. The symbol was, happily, later reclaimed by pacifist movements, at the tail end of this tale. A rooster’s tail feather haw a very fetching slender shape, making it very distinctive and not unappealing, and there is a healthy trade in these feathers on sites such as Etsy, since they are readily used in fashion accessories such as millinery adornment.

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Today’s cufflinks suggest a rooster’s head to me, and are crafted out of beautifully oxidized 820 grade silver. They bear the maker’s mark of Relo, a German firm, and the abstract, mildly brutalist, form hints at the late 1950s to mid-1960s as their creation date.  The choice of the rooster is a rare counterpoint to the more commonly found owl, widely favoured by designers working during this period, that might be roughly -although clumsily- termed Eames Era. I find the contours of the pair as well as the contrast of the hues in the aged silver to be very fetching, though the hypnotic eyes hint at the bird’s long-standing role of watchfulness and vigilance.

The most famous cufflink wearer in the world

Today’s blog post is about Pope Benedict XVI, arguably the world’s best-known cufflink wearer. Today has been an incredibly sad day for me, since I have long been an admirer of Dr Joseph Ratzinger, beginning with his period as cardinal and continuing throughout his pontificate. Indeed, I feel somewhat of a special bond with him. Firstly, this hails back to 2005 following the death of John Paul II. I was at a seventeenth-century French literature conference in South Carolina – more fun that you might imagine -and I had a wager with a friend from Cambridge. The bet concerned the cardinal who would be elected pope and the name he would assume for his reign. The winner would be the one who correctly guessed both, so it was not certain that either of us would win. My friend opted for Cardinal Scola, then patriarch of Venice, and predicted he would take the name of Paul VII. The prize was a no-holds barred, lavish meal, and I enjoyed some magnificent fare at Loch Fyne in Cambridge in May of 2005. I chose Cardinal Ratzinger and speculated that he would take the regnal name of Benedict XVI. I felt that Ratzinger would be disposed towards Benedict XV (1914-1922), a largely forgotten pontiff who followed in the footsteps of a very charismatic and popular pope. I suspected that this would appeal to Ratzinger, particularly since the name had not been used for almost a century. Benedict XV was a diminutive figure as can be seen in the photograph below.

ImageIt is not very clear, but the papal feet are propped up with a cushion. I hope my British readers will forgive my observation that he very much looks like the comic actor Charles Hawtrey. A few months before his election as pope, Cardinal della Chiesa, as he was, made a visit to the French shrine of Lourdes for an international celebration. Owing to his short stature, he was largely ignored since he didn’t exude the air of someone of any importance (a very foolish assumption, given that Louis XIV, Queen Victoria, and Napoléon were all under 5′ 3″ in height).  The bishop of Grenoble, Louis-Joseph Marin, warmed to the Italian and spent several days with him. This act of hospitality was not forgotten; Benedict XV created Mons. Marin a cardinal several months after his election and transferred him to the important archdiocese of Lyon, despite the prelate being in his mid-50s, a relatively young age for such ecclesiastical advancement.

Another reason for which I am quite bereft today is that I feel that Benedict XVI has been like a father to me. The title of pope comes from a Greek word meaning daddy or pappa. While I have been blessed in my life with an amazing mother, I cannot, unfortunately, say the same about my father. He made little effort to keep in touch with me, his eldest child, when my parents divorced when I was 5 years old (a split entirely caused by his behaviour) and I sought him out when aged 21. When my beloved mother passed away in July, I contacted my father to let him know and give him details of the funeral. This was the woman to whom he was married for 8 years and I was his son. I did not receive one word of a reply. If ever I have the blessing to have children, I will count myself fortunate not to emulate my own father. So, Benedict XVI is the father who has never let me down, even if I feel very upset by his decision to renounce the papacy later this month. I suspect there is a serious reason for doing so and that he has received a diagnosis of dementia or terminal illness. In any case, since Benedict has a very acute sense of history, this must have been a very painful decision for him to make.

ImageI am gratified that Benedict has been a loyal cufflink wearer, with one very famous lapse: the day of his election. Not expecting to be elected pope and certainly not on the second day of the conclave, Benedict was caught wearing a more comfortable black shirt underneath his cassock (above), which demonstrates how much a white French-cuffed shirt is particularly apt for a cleric. I always wore one during my time in seminary. On that day, Benedict gave a simple impromptu speech declaring that “The cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard”. The BBC correspondant remarked that no one would accuse Ratzinger of being simple.

The tradition of giving a speech on election is a relatively new one. Until John Paul II was elected on 16 October, 1978, popes had simply imparted their blessing to the assembled faithful after the famous “Habemus papam” declaration. John Paul I had wanted to say a few words but was told that he couldn’t. John Paul II didn’t ask; he informed his assistants that he would address the crowd. This ex-temporized discourse is absolutely incredible and can be seen here. Faced with a somewhat lukewarm reception from the largely Italian crowd – he was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and wasn’t widely well-known to the general public – he succeeds in a few minutes in having the audience eat out of his hand and rapturously cheer him by the end. He was a hugely charismatic man; I had the great privilege of having a private audience with him at Castel Gandolfo in 1985 and being photographed with him. I should scan the picture, but here’s the meta-picture, located in my office, of me meeting Blessed John Paul II.

ImageHow did John Paul II win over a crowd that wasn’t disposed to him? Clutching the balcony, almost as if suggesting he needed support, the Polish pontiff talked to the spectators in informal, intimate terms:

And now the most eminent cardinals have called a new bishop of Rome. They called him from a far-away country . . .  far, but always near in the communion of faith and the Christian tradition. I was afraid in receiving this nomination, but I did it in the spirit of obedience to Our Lord and with total trust in his Mother, the Most Holy Madonna.

In using the word for Mary, he used the idiomatic Italian term Madonna, an attention to linguistic detail that caused many to applaud. He went on, in his flawless Italian: “I don’t know if I can express myself well in your – in our – Italian language. But if I make a mistake, you will correct me.” The correction of your to our and the invitation to people to guide him endeared him to the crowd. He was a remarkable man and I can still vividly remember the hour I spent in his presence in the private audience as well as seeing him in a general audience within the context of a larger crowd in the Vatican.

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After the sartorial faux pas of the black shirt worn on the balcony at his election, Benedict never made the same mistake again. The cufflinks he has worn throughout his reign are those seen in the close-up above. They contain amethysts indicating that they were most probably given as a gift when he was consecrated a bishop in 1977, since the amethyst, being purple, often features on episcopal rings. The Vicar of Christ will become simple Mons. Ratzinger at 8pm on 28 February 2013. The fact that he has continued to wear the same pair of cufflinks to fasten his shirts for over four decades is an eloquent sign of his humility. It is this same humble spirit that has undoubtedly led him to renounce the Petrine ministry later this month.

Holy Father, I may not understand why, but I thank you for your service and I love you, Papa.

Succumbing to the blues

Statistics are often the tool of the manipulative and the weak, but polls reveal that most people’s favourite colour is blue, consistently chosen by over half of those questioned. It is also the colour with the most diverse, and attractive, names to describe its hues. There is cobalt, azure, aquamarine, Catalina blue, royal blue, Prussian blue, midnight blue, powder blue, turquoise (surely the most garish shade of all), and even baby blue. As the colour of the sky and sea, it is the very shade of life itself, for we live on a blue planet. At the same time, blue possesses negative connotations, since we talk of experiencing the blues and we can find ourselves between the Devil and deep blue sea. This melancholic spin of blue is thought to come from an early modern expression to have “the blue devil”, which in turn is a corruption of “baleful devil”. To be beset by sadness. In Kieślowski’s trilogy of films, Blue (1993), arguably the finest of the three movies, the eponymous colour stands for artistic and personal freedom and, in particular, appears as inspiration when the protagonist is finishing a composition. The musical associations are deep-seated; the blues is a musical genre. Rimbaud made blue the audial vowel in his Voyelles, linking it to the biblical trumpet blast piercing across time and space. A friend at university who was a synesthete told me that the songs of the Beatles were defiantly blue.

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Courtesy of Michael D Beckwith, Flickr

Blue has a special place in Christian art for it is the colour associated with the Blessed Virgin. I always think of the stunning barrel ceiling of my local cathedral, Carlisle, shown above, and dating from the fourteenth century. The luxuriant blue roof is enhanced by the complementary sandstone surround. If the Renaissance had a colour, it would be blue. The blues used in Renaissance paintings can still shock us by their rampant vibrancy. When Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1523) was last restored in 1968, it whipped up a fierce controversy since many could not accept that the artist had favoured such bright blues; the general public preferred to believe that the more subdued hues of the discolouration of the varnish reflected the artist’s taste. Yet Michelangelo, who visited Titian’s studio in 1546, complained afterwards that the latter’s use of colour was excessive. The blueish hue that was the most prized during this period, often only reserved for the clothing of Our Lady, was ultramarine, which was made from crushed lapis lazuli sourced from a specific mine in Afghanistan and this pigment was considerably more expensive than gold by weight.

ImageI have much affection for a painting that is attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci, the Litta Madonna, above. We can see the startling ultramarine in both Mary’s cloak as well as in the sky glimpsed through the windows, a use that emphasizes that this woman is the most natural of all creatures, since she conforms completely to the divine will. The most striking thing about this image is the Christ child. The painting focuses entirely on His human nature. This is a naked, greedy, and needy infant. Yet there is one significant hint of the divinity of the suckling baby: its eyes are not concentrated on feeding neither are they closed. They are looking to us, for whom the creator has become vulnerable, exposed, and, above all, human. Blue is crucial in achieving the painting’s supreme effect on the viewer: reassurance.

Since this particular colour was so expensive to obtain, it was inevitable that cheaper alternatives were sought, and there was a 500-year quest to obtain a satisfying shade of blue. One source was in the use of woad, which produced a lighter (when used in dye) though not unattractive version of blue (below), a plant that was also used in colouring the faces of Celtic warriors.

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The quest to locate blue pigments was to have profound effects on art, particularly during the nineteenth century. We need only think of some of the night scenes of Van Gogh to appreciate how much the availability of new blues influenced artists. The iconic Japanese woodblock known as the Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (c. 1830) has featured in countless posters and the woodblock uses new pigments of blue. My personal favourite use of blue in a coloured block is in Hasui Kawase’s  Night Moon at Hommonji Temple, executed in the late 1940s, below. I have an original of this woodblock scene hanging in my bedroom. Hasui, generally reckoned to be the most accomplished woodblock artist of the twentieth century, magisterially and almost effortlessly uses a range of blues which eclipse the Moon in the nocturnal setting. There is something faintly eerie, while at the same time intensely pacifying, about this nightscape.

ImageThe new sources of blue led to institutions such as the armed forces adopting it because of its greater availability and cheaper cost; the American army adopted it in contrast to the red livery of British soldiers during the struggle for independence and a dark indigo was used in police uniforms in the UK until the 1990s. Never has a search for a colour had such greater impact on art and clothing.

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Today’s cufflinks are made out of sterling silver with fired blue enamel. They are unmarked, but look like they might have been made during the 1960s. The silver has oxidized to a dark matte silver that underscores the enamelling beautifully. The enamel is subtle yet stunning: the mid-blue possesses turquoiseish hints while being bordered by a narrow band of a dark, purple-blue. The texture of the enamel, which isn’t shiny as some enamel can be, completes the effect. I am rather infatuated with this pair and calmed by its soothing blues. Above all, they remind me of the person with whom I am in love and for whom I first wore this pair in Vancouver in December 2012.

Musine musings

In those heady, far-flung pre-Internet days, there was an annual French publication called Quid that contained every conceivable fact pertaining to mainland France. One fact that always used to catch my eye was the estimated population of mice in the nation. Naturally, it exceeded that of humans but it does beg the question of the use of such a statistic. There is a certain kind of pleasure to be derived in learning an apparently useless fact and, indeed, one person’s pointless piece of data could prove to be a gem of information to another one. It’s all a question of perspective. I suspect that the inclusion of this annual musine poll had something to do with considering the diminutive animal as vermin. And yet the humble house mouse has been with us for as long as we have lived in houses, though there is a recent theory that the Vikings unwittingly transported them to the British Isles, which had been mouse-free until the marauding pillagers brought havoc, destruction, and quite possibly a species of rodent with them.

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Not unlike the rodent, the Vikings ended up seeking stability, a desire that was to have enormous repercussions on the English-speaking world. Thoroughly fed up with successive and incessant Viking incursions into France and the Paris region, the French king offered their leader, Rollo, a prize which turned out to be irresistible: respectability. Rollo was created Duke of Normandy and given the region as his personal possession in 911 in exchange for being the vassal of the French sovereign. Rollo assumed the name of Robert and dropped his Scandinavian roots. His descendant William (seen above in the Bayeux Tapestry, a remarkable piece of artistic propaganda that still awes almost a millennium later), conquered the English throne in 1066 and obsessed with status, as only former bandits made good could be, promptly set about ensuring the stability of his dynasty. The most permanent result of this is the stone buildings that replaced the Anglo-Saxon wooden dwellings. Durham Cathedral (below), which dominates the city in which I spent nine happy years obtaining three degrees, is unquestionably the most striking cathedral in the world, not least of which for its magisterial location on a peninsular.

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Courtesy of derekuk2000, Flickr

Yet this magnificent Norman building was seen by many of the local populace during its construction as a symbol of foreign dominance and oppression, for a centuries-old church was razed to the ground to make way for the new edifice, which would be staffed by Norman clergy.  The brilliant medievalist Jacques Le Goff states on the very first page of La civilisation de l’Occident médiéval (1961) that the West owes very little to the Romans. The Romans, he argues, were profoundly conservative and did not produce any major invention, not even in warfare. There is an amusing scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian concerning the question of “What have the Romans ever done for us?”. The Romans were masters of appropriation as seen with their wholescale theft of Hellenistic culture. It was the fusion of different societies produced by the Barbarian influx into Europe that produced the artistic achievements of the Middle Ages. The Normans are part of this story.

Back to the mouse! The modest mouse has always had a place in churches, not only literally but also figuratively. The mouse has long been held to be emblematic of the soul, perhaps because it is one of the most tenacious animals known to us. It can adapt to any conditions and somehow seems to survive even the severest and harshest trials that nature can offer. St Gertrude of Nivelles is always pictured with mice, sometimes crawling up her crozier or, as in the sixteenth-century Book of Hours below (which is the Carnegie Museum of Art), crawling around her cell.

ImageThe hagiographic legend relates that she was distracted from the outside well by occupying herself with weaving. So caught up was she with this pastime that she lost track of time. Suddenly, when she glimpsed all of the mice running around her monastic confine, she realized that spring had arrived and ventured outdoors to enjoy the garden. She is, thus, the patron saint of gardeners. She is also, by a strange turn of events, in charge of cats. The mouse possesses paradoxical symbolism, as it also is held to symbolize lust, since it is remarkably fertile. Pliny, whose observations range from factual to fantasy, wrote that even embryonic mice could be pregnant. Musophobia, or fear of mice, is one of the most universally experienced phobia, perhaps explaining the negative connotations that the rodent has attracted throughout the ages.

Mice have always been with us and one of my earliest memories is of a mousetrap and being appalled at its barbarity. Despite the fact that are widely considered to be a pest, mice are also reassuring -since they are our constant companions- and they are also very cute creatures. Who can resist their scampering and scavenging behaviour? They have played a significant role in folklore and fairy tales, with my personal favourite being the positively weird Grimm brothers’ tale of The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage, which narrates the domestic bliss of these unlikely bedfellows, until, that is, they decide to swap their roles. A sausage should know its place, after all. On that score, I personally find sausage to be the most ridiculous-sounding word in the English language. How can anyone utter this term without some degree of risibility?

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Today’s cufflinks are crafted out of sterling silver by the sought-after Mexican silversmith Silmex, carrying its maker’s mark and bearing the city of Taxco, home to many fine jewellers during most of the twentieth century. The artisanship of the pair is breathtaking, with a three-dimensional mouse in relief, a raised border, and patterned faces. Their surprising subject reminds me of the work of Robert Thompson (1876-1955), a British furniture maker whose products always contain a trademark carved mouse, operating as his quirky signature; as a result the carpenter became known as Mouseman. His work now fetches eye-watering sums at auction, giving a whole new meaning to being poor as a church mouse. Finally, the shape of the animal gave rise to something we use almost without thinking: a computer mouse, now very much removed from its original form that resulted in the association.

Purple prose

Purple is a mysterious shade. Not a colour, properly speaking, but a combination, it can range from a reddish to a blueish hue. It is a matter of supreme injustice that purple escapes the status of colourdom when indigo belongs in the spectrum only because of the mystical beliefs of Isaac Newton. The physicist was obsessed with numerical symbolism and could not accept a spectrum with fewer than seven colours, seven holding particularly rich connotations in many belief systems. Indigo, then, while not being a real colour and simply a shade of blue, usurped its way into the rainbow, entirely out of the prejudices of Newton. As well as possessing a diverse range of variations -from mauve to mulberry- purple is also very difficult for the human eye to discern because it has the shortest spectral range, occurring as it does between red and blue.

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Purple has enjoyed very deep veins of meaning throughout history. It has long been associated with royalty, a link that continues to this day as seen in the coronation portrait of the king-emperor George VI in 1937 (above). Roman emperors adopted it in place of red, a use that very likely was related to Alexander the Great’s practice of wearing a purple cloak when acting as emperor; the Romans had a special devotion to this figure, which explains why both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony so readily interacted with Cleopatra from the outset despite her being a queen -monarchs were despised by the Romans and female rulers in particular- since the Ptolemy dynasty claimed blood descent from the military conqueror. Use of purple in the Roman Empire became gradually restricted until only the emperor himself could wear it (not unlike the colour yellow being the regal colour in China and Thailand) under pain of death. Caligula, possibly the most deranged and debauched of all emperors, had the king of Mauritania murdered for having sported robes in this colour. That did not, however, stop Caligula from dressing his favourite horse, Incitatus, in a purple cloak. This horse also benefitted from an indoor manger constructed out of ivory and, while Caligula considered making this animal a senator, he never actually did so.

Musée Bonnat - La découverte de la pourpre - Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1636)

This all begs the question of why purple, and why not say orange, became linked to grandeur and power. The answer is, as always, a simple one: cost. Purple was sourced from murex, a Mediterranean sea snail that secretes mucous in this striking color. It takes an enormous amount of murex to make even small quantities of the purple secretion needed to dye cloth. Given its noble role in standing for the leader of the Western world, a myth was constructed around the colour, though a rather whimsical and surprisingly human one. It is related that, while walking his dog on the beach at Tyre and distracted by courting a fetching nymph, Hercules noticed that his dog which busied itself through playing at the sea while he was otherwise occupied,  had its mouth dyed purple after devouring some of the sea snails that had been beached in the tide. And thus, Tyrian purple was born. Peter Paul Rubens pictured this scene in the sixteenth century (above).

Courtesy of JYaunTayaban, Flickr

Courtesy of JYaunTayaban, Flickr

It might appear surprising, since it was the colour of prestige, that bishops came to wear purple.  This is a throwback to the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476. In the turbulent aftermath and the successive waves of Barbarian invasions, it fell upon bishops to maintain some sense of order and continuity, since the hierarchy was an organized network that survived the fall of Roman civilization. Monasteries played a crucial role in ensuring the survival of classical culture during the uneasy three centuries that followed. As well as providing stability, Church officials also were literate and played an essential part in maintaining a culture of documentation and writing. It is for this reason that the legal and office term clerk derives from cleric, a member of the clergy. Byzantine emperors always signed their signatures with purple ink, a practice continued after 1453 by the patriarchs of Constantinople, though sadly this tradition fell into abeyance during the course of the twentieth century.

Thus purple, formerly associated with the secular authority, became bound with ecclesiastical authority. It must be added that technically bishops were not allowed to wear purple until the fifteenth century when Pope Paul II allowed cardinals to wear red since purple was becoming too expensive a commodity. Bishops were to wear an inferior indigo-purple colour which, over the centuries, became the particular pinkish episcopal shade that is worn today (as above; the long cloak that the prelate wears is called the cappa magna and originally developed to envelop a bishop riding on horseback). This change has only been partially successful; we still speak of cardinals as taking the Roman purple when they are named, and the pope still wears the former papal preserve of red in all of his accessories (shoes, cloak, hats). On this note, I cannot resist including a very delicious anecdote about the former British foreign secretary George Brown. Mr Brown, who served under Harold Wilson’s government during the 1960s, had a noted and pronounced penchant for alcoholic beverages. Indeed, the BBC coined the expression “tired and emotional” as a euphemism to describe public occasions on which the politician had been, to put it plainly, sozzled. The snippet is quoted by an eyewitness, at a reception held in the Brazilian president’s Palace of the Dawn and is recounted in A. N. Wilson’s Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II:

“It was really quite beautiful – I think only the Latin Americans still do it that way: all the military officers were in full dress uniform, and the ambassadors were in court dress. Sumptuous is the word, and sparkling. As we entered, George made a beeline for this gorgeously crimson-clad figure, and said “Excuse me, but may I have the pleasure of this dance?” There was a terrible silence for a moment before the guest, who knew who he was, replied, “There are three reasons, Mr Brown, why I will not dance with you. The first, I fear, is that you’ve had a little too much to drink. The second is that this is not, as you seem to suppose, a waltz the orchestra is playing, but the Peruvian national anthem, for which you should be standing to attention. And the third reason why we may not dance, Mr Brown, is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.” (p. 163)

Purple is not only remiscent of pomp since it is linked to mourning in some Asian countries -recent widow’s weeds are this colour in Thailand- and was also the royal colour of mourning in many European monarchies. In spiritual terms, it is the colour of penance (Lent) and of preparation (Advent). For that unhappy section of society which delights in moralizing, purple has often served as the colour of decadence and vanity, for reasons that are obvious.  Its spiritual use might also be related to the fact that the natural dye is surprisingly tenacious and thus remains constant, in a world that sometimes moves and changes too quickly.

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Today’s cufflinks contain the rare mineral Charoite, which is hypnotically entrancing in both its colour and the veined pattern. Far more beautiful than amethyst, traditionally associated with the colour purple, Charoite is only found in certain regions of Russia and was only formally listed as a mineral in 1978. The sterling silver surround is understated and allows the mineral to seduce without overshadowing it in any way. The pair has a maker’s mark that I cannot identify, a type of symbol, but the creator has made his or her mark on the back of the pair, with an attractive embossed pattern, below.

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I particularly like the fact that this mineral remained undiscovered to the wider world until the tail end of the twentieth century. We invest much time seeking happiness and adventures elsewhere, little appreciating the hidden treasures that await our discovery beneath our feet. I think that if Charoite had been known through the centuries, a very different story of purple could have been told.