Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) was a writer who put his eggs into the wrong basket. His first patron, to whom he remained devoted even after the disgrace of the former, was the brilliant Nicolas Foucquet. This administrator and benefactor to the arts committed the ultimate sin: he outshone the Sun King. In the lavish ceremonies to celebrate to opening of Fouquet’s newly built palace at Vaux-le-Vicomte in 1661, the finance minister realized, all too late, that his guest of honour, the 22-year-old Louis XIV, had a very displeased dismeanour. He immediately offered to donate the estate to the monarch, but Louis acerbically replied that kings did not receive grandeur from their subjects. A few weeks later Fouquet was arrested by D’Artagnan and a small band of trusted musketeers. Although Louis was able to stage manage a show trial -on the basis of financial corruption- he was ultimately unsuccessful in his efforts to pressure the judges to enforce the death penalty; the justices opted for life imprisonment. Every judge who voted against a capital sentence was removed from office within a matter of months. In one of the great injustices of the seventeenth century, a man who had helped himself to perks in a much more modest way than his predecessors found himself imprisoned for the rest of his life. La Fontaine remained vocal in his support of the beleagured politician. For this act of disloyalty to the regime, he was to receive his own disgrace. When he was finally elected to the Académie Française aged in his 60s, Louis XIV refused to grant his assent for several months, an unprecedented course of action. La Fontaine’s fables are crammed full of examples of injustice and abusive power. In one of the fabulist’s most curious poems, “Le lion et le moucheron” (The lion and the gnat), he takes up a tale first spun by Aesop, about a gnat which buzzed around a lion and had this beast hopping mad at its inability to destroy the source of its annoyance. The gnat flies away, very pleased at its victory, only to fly straight into a spider’s web thus meeting an untimely demise. La Fontaine spells out two morals which amount more or less to the same thing: firstly, we should not underestimate apparently small enemies; secondly, we are often distracted by major affairs when it is sometimes little things that bring us down. There is, undoubtedly, a hidden message to Louis XIV here (La Fontaine dedicated the first collection of fables to the dauphin in 1668 with the implicit imperative of following literary wisdom rather than imitating his illustrious father). While the lion and the gnat come out rather badly, the spider alone seems triumphant and full of foresight.
Spiders are the object of the most universal phobia, arachnophobia, yet this intense and widespread fear is also coupled with millennia of positive associations, symbolism, and mythology. Spiders can be very beautiful and have evolved into some ingenious forms. My personal favourite is the bird dropping spider, above, which, as its name so prosaically states, resembles avian dung. Not only that but the spider also weaves a white silken base that looks like a spatter mark beneath its body and emits an unpleasant odour that approximates fecal matter. This disguise is far from crappy as it succeeds in attracting prey and repels predators, a perfect combination. Many spiders, such as the tarantula, look fearsome but contain relatively harmless venom, though it’s been a struggle to adapt to living in the Midwest where there are brown recluses -I regularly find them in spider traps below my bed- given that I come from a country which boasts of no harmful arachnids. My mother would always urge me to check my suitcases closely, as she strongly suspected that I would one day unwittingly bring a brown recluse back with me on my visits home. I used to tease her about it, joking that I had seen something run out of my suitcase, but Mother became inured to this!
Perhaps it is not so much the appearance of spiders but rather their devious means of trapping prey that so unsettles us, as it does seem to point to an intelligence that spiders do not actually possess. Arachnid brains are very simple and operate a few reactions such as run, eat, and, quite rarely, attack. The appearance of cunning is a tenacious one. Some versions of the Japanese Jorōgumo legend depict a spider taking the form of a seductive woman who lulls a gullible man with her lascivious appearance and soothing music only to weave a web around him and then devour him. A nineteenth-century woodcut, above, represents a man being rescued from this fate. While such sinister manifestations are to be found in folklore and even populate horror movies, the spider’s industriousness generally enjoys a more positive spin – pun intended.
My favourite version is one familiar to Scottish schoolchildren, that of Robert the Bruce. While Robert spent several months hiding in caves on the Irish coast during the wars that threatened his position as King of the Scots (he ruled as Robert I from 1306 to 1329), he one day watched a spider spin a web to connect two points of the cave’s roof. It kept falling down but commenced again and again until, on the eighth attempt it successfully had weaved the skeleton of its web. He was heartened by the resourceful stubbornness of such an insignificant creature and felt emboldened in his own quest, which would culminate in the Battle of Bannockburn (1314), a decisive victory over English colonialism in Scotland. The same story of arachnid voyeurism is also to be found in a Jewish legend about King David, while closer to our time, Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” makes a metaphysical trope along the same lines:
A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.
On the subject of religion, the patron saint of spider bites is St Conrad of Constance, seen in the stained glass below with a rather cute spider peering over the top of his golden chalice. The hagiographical detail is that this tenth-century prelate was celebrating Mass when a large, vicious-looking spider dropped in the chalice. St Conrad was singularly unimpressed and downed the contents, spider and all. It was popularly believed that all spiders were poisonous, whether venomous or not, so the saint was taking his life into his hands, somewhat literally. Nowadays, liturgists only recommend swallowing a spider if it is small, digestible, and non-toxic. Otherwise it should be scooped out with a purifier -a white linen- and both the spider’s corpse and the linen burnt when dried out. If there are any ashes, these should be disposed down the sacrarium, a sink within the church’s precinct that goes straight into the earth. The Catholic Church may be accused of many things, but being unmethodical is not one of them.
While there are countless horrid urban legends concerning spiders, it is gratifying to know that Spiderman and St Conrad exist to counter the negative connotations. Hagiography and comic books share many affinities.
I think that the most appealing arachnine appearance in art has to be the Maman series of sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. The image above shows one outside of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, which stands at over 30 feet in height. The title of the work is the French word for Mum or Mom, and Bourgeois manages to create a sense of maternal comfort in these sculptures that somehow eclipses the menace of the form. It is interesting that spiders are most often represented and understood as being feminine. In dream interpretation, the presence of spiders is usually deemed to relate to the dreamer’s mother or a strong female in their life, particularly if the spider bites. I can’t help but feel that this symbolism seems to reflect society’s long-standing misogyny more than anything else.
Today’s cufflinks strongly suggest a spider to me, and a female one carrying eggs on her back. There are no maker’s marks to be found on this pair other than an 835 silver stamp, denoting 83.5% grade silver, which often oxidizes in a more appealing way than sterling silver. I acquired them from Germany and would guess them to be studio made in the early 1970s. The swirly lines of the framed spider is most definitely positive and hints at gateways such as the worldwide web rather than fear of the unknown.