Crowning glory

It is an inevitable fact that any form of ceremonial dress will, eventually, end up looking faintly absurd. British judges and barristers blended into early eighteenth-century society but now appear somewhat incongruous sporting horsehair wigs of various lengths and carrying gloves in their “non-dominant hand” on various occasions, not to mention nosegays. The same is true for the winged gowns and brightly colored hoods of academic regalia or the pinstriped pants and tailcoat of morning dress. However, these all serve a function and a very important one at that: they are symbols and relics whose purpose enables us to go beyond externals to deeper truths. People who cannot, because of the feebleness of their imagination or some attachment to the quaint crevices of humanity, journey beyond these exterior sartorial signs are invariably devoid of faith, religious or human, and should be avoided at all costs. It is a strange thing indeed that we need to be attired in certain clothing on specific occasions, but it cannot be denied that this need is as universal as it is deeply engrained, whether it be for a wedding, graduation, investiture or formal dinner. The older the institution, the grander and more elaborate the vestimentary code, meaning that monarchies possess some stunning -and sometimes startling- apparel.

ImageI’m currently teaching a play by Jean Anouilh, Becket ou l’honneur de Dieu (Becket or the Honor of God, 1959), which was adapted, very successfully, into a movie in 1964 with Peter O’Toole playing the role of King Henry II of England and Richard Burton starring as his nemesis, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. The historical events are fascinating; Henry II when he became sovereign appointed his very close friend and companion, then a deacon, as archbishop of Canterbury, a move which served the two-fold aim of elevating his friend as well as having his ally to control the Church in his country. Instead of being his stooge and servant, Becket was seized with an unexpected change of heart and took the role seriously, so much so that he came into constant conflict with Henry, losing his friendship, support, and eventually his life when four knights took the ruler at his word in wanting rid of the “turbulent priest”, slaying the unarmed prelate in his cathedral, the fatal blow being delivered by a sword which split open the archbishop’s skull.

I spent a year living in Ramsgate and teaching at the University of Kent prior to moving to the USA and visited the spot of Becket’s martyrdom inside Canterbury Cathedral on a number of occasions (refusing to pay to enter the building on each occasion; I passionately believe that churches and toilets should be free facilities). In the hands of Jean Anouilh, the story becomes less of a narrative about religion and duty than a story imbued with colonial and racial themes. Becket is cast by the playwright -wrongly it turns out- as a Saxon and has a subservient relationship at first to the Norman king, being his “little Saxon” and even toweling the monarch dry, massaging him, and giving up his bed to him to sleep on the floor during the first act, a relationship with a homoerotic subtext; it is also possible that the two historical figures had been lovers at some point in their youth, which would certainly go some way in explaining their extraordinarily bitter feud. This theme of colonized peoples collaborating, sometimes uneasily, with their oppressors was a highly topical one in 1959. Anouilh adds to the racial element by implying that the cleric also had a Palestinian mother brought back from the Crusades, indicating that this is indeed one of the play’s central topics. At the time of his play’s publication, the Algerian question loomed large for the French, particularly for the president, Charles de Gaulle, architect of the newly devised Fifth Republic (1958) and a longtime personal enemy of Anouilh. The General suspected the writer of having collaborated with the occupying Germans during the Second World War since he remained in Paris, probably wrongly since Anouilh’s Antigone premiered in the capital several weeks before its liberation in 1944 and very vividly depicts the indomitable spirit of resistance against tyranny. Going back to his play about twelfth-century England, the opening scene shows Henry II visiting Becket’s tomb to do penance. He arrives in a red cloak and a crown, moves to the tomb with his back to the audience, then removes it to reveal that he is completely naked. This unexpected visual effect superbly illustrates the ethical emptiness of the Norman ruler’s colonialist ideology. It also reverses the power dynamic between them, since the King kneels, bereft of clothing. Except that, significantly, he retains the crown on his head. The 1964 movie version might have been filmed during the swinging sixties yet has the ruler keep on his pants and only strip himself of his shirt (above), a prudish change which guts the original setting of its potency.

ImageCrowns are perhaps the most recognizable and obvious symbols of monarchy, often used in coats of arms, flags, and as a cipher. Queen Elizabeth II, who is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror, the great grandfather of Henry II and who seized the English crown in 1066, through eight separate lines, is pictured above at the State Opening of Parliament in May of this year, wearing the Imperial State Crown. This crown might only have been created for Queen Victoria in 1838 but it contains some much older parts. The blue sapphire in the cross comes from a ring made for Edward the Confessor around 1054, the Black Prince’s Ruby at the front of the band, the size of a chicken egg, was given to the English monarchy in 1367, and the crown also contains pearls from the collection of Elizabeth I. While crowns are a ceremonial headgear associated with most of the world’s remaining monarchies, only that of the UK (and the Queen’s other realms) and Tonga actually wear one.

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Tonga’s crown may be seen in the above image, of the coronation of King George Tupou V in 2008. The delightfully attired ruler died in March of 2012, succeeded by his younger brother now King Tupou VI, since George had no issue, being what used to be coyly and knowingly referred to as a confirmed bachelor. Other monarchies, such as those of Belgium and the Netherlands, use an actual crown in official ceremonies, but one which rests on a cushion like an unwanted and abandoned handbag. It is a rather sad state of affairs since the crown is pregnant with the symbolism of power and wealth, even if the former is rarely the case.

ImageI completed an article which will appear in the journal Œuvres et Critiques very shortly in a special issue devoted to the irascible and indefatigable extreme Catholic theologian Jean Boucher (1548-1646?) which I co-edited with my friend and colleague Bruce Hayes. My article, “Les images théâtrales de Jean Boucher”, deals with the eight woodcut illustrations which feature in Boucher’s polemical work, La Vie et faits notables de Henry de Valois (Paris: Didier Millot, 1589), railing against King Henri III of France and a book which would inspire a fanatical Dominican friar, Jacques Clément, to stab the ruler fatally several months later. Henri gave an audience to his assassin while on his latrine (a special informal audience given to a privileged few), a lesson about toilet etiquette if ever one were needed. One of the images in the work, above (courtesy of the Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas), concerns an episode which allegedly took place at the coronation of Henri in 1575 (which Boucher attended and gave an address in his capacity as dean of the theology faculty of Reims, a position he held before becoming dean of the Sorbonne’s theology faculty). We only have Boucher’s word for the incident and it does suspiciously bear the hallmarks of fabrication. The priest relates that the king cried out that the crown hurt him and it fell twice off his head, all the while engaging in unedifying whispering asides to his gang of mignons, the pretty young men with whom Henri delighted in surrounding himself. Whether authentic or not, the image is a striking trope of a ruler unsuited, literally and figuratively, for the dignity of the crown. As I also argue in my article, it also serves as an elliptic critique of the sovereign’s same-sex tendencies, a love which enfeebles him and erodes his political and masculine power.

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At the same time, the scene evokes the ubiquitous iconography of the wheel of fortune, as above, with the king’s falling crown, the implication being that Henri cannot escape the clutches of destiny. Boucher held that Henri had ceased to be king when he ordered the execution of the Guise brothers in December 1588, an act of tyranny against a Catholic prince and a cardinal which caused him to lose his office -and crown. Above all, the illustration deftly illustrates Boucher’s deadly gift for satire.

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Today’s cufflinks are in the design of the Swedish royal arms, with the three crowns representing the three provinces of the nation. They are made by Sporrong, the royal jewellers and a company which was founded in 1666. The are crafted out of rich cobalt guilloched enamel and gold fill. I bought them in Helsinki a couple of years ago. I had forgotten to pack my cufflinks on a trip from Paris and called into an antique store run by an intransigent and formidable lady who spoke to me in French and was ruthless in resisting my repeated attempts at haggling. Sometimes the memory of how we acquired something can be just as enjoyable as the item itself. Another metaphor, perhaps.

Fool’s gold

On 12 May, 1937, King George VI was crowned as King of England and ruler of a vast empire over which he was also Emperor of India, along with his consort Queen Elizabeth, in Westminster Abbey. Two unusual breaches of tradition took place during the ceremony. Firstly, the dowager queen, Mary, was present at the service. Convention dictated that the late sovereign’s widow not attend. However, in the wake of the profound scandal caused by the abdication of Edward VIII to marry a twice-divorced American, Queen Mary (who always refused the title of Queen Mother) opted to be there in a display of inter-familial unity. This was a difficult decision for Queen Mary as she was a stickler for correct form; when her husband had died -it had been a real love-match and George V never took a mistress unlike his father- she had retained enough composure to turn immediately to her son, curtsy, and kiss his hand in a gesture of obeisance to her new monarch. The second breach of tradition did not cause much comment yet it revealed much about the will of the King’s wife. Elizabeth chose to have a crown made out of platinum, rather than gold, a choice that was without any royal precedent. This choice has never been explained and the late Queen Mother was not, at least to my knowledge, ever asked about it or mentioned the reasons for choosing platinum over the traditional gold. This stunning crown was last seen on top of her coffin in 2002, the year she died aged 101 years old, fortified by her staunch sense of public duty and gin.

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Gold is the metal most associated with royalty, but not just royalty, it is also a byword that resonates with wealth, opulence, and decoration. It has been thus for millennia, in the east and west, common to different cultures, peoples, and religions. It is mentioned over 400 times in the Old Testament. We do not use real gold in our currency any more and the gold standard ended four decades ago, and yet it still permeates our language. We talk about a golden age and golden years. Something -or someone- can be worth its or their weight in gold and, if we’re lucky, our friends and lovers will have hearts of gold. With the recent Olympics, a gold medal was the ultimate accolade, just as seeking the Golden Fleece or the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow are mythic quests. Yet, unlike other precious metals such as silver and platinum, gold possesses negative connotations too. It is a symbol of greed. King Midas was punished for this vice and, in the Old Testament, the unfaithful children of Israel worship a golden calf.

In Peter Bernstein’s The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession, a book that I’d recommend for its facts and statistics rather than the narrative, the author summarizes the allure -pun intended- of the yellow metal:

Over the centuries, gold has stirred the passions for power and glory, for beauty, for security, and even for immortality. Gold has been an icon for greed, a vehicle for vanity, and a potent constraint as a monetary standard. No other object has commanded so much veneration over so long a period of time. (p. 367)

Despite its somewhat turbulent and ambiguous history, gold is highly integral to many religious practices, from the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Japan (and I’d highly recommend Mishima Yukio’s novel of the same name about a young monk who becomes obsessed by its beauty and is compelled to destroy it) to the tabernacle containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

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In Catholic liturgical practice, gold-coloured vestments can replace any liturgical colour except for black (i.e. red, green, white, and violet). That is to say that, even though it is not a licit liturgical colour in its own right, it can simply brush the official colour to one side. Black, the colour of vestments used for mourning such as Masses for the dead, often contains gold borders and embroidery, for the gold there symbolizes hope in the resurrection, figuratively and literally embedded in the mourning black and the black of mourning. I find it fascinating that, given its undeniable links to human greedy and frailty, it can assume such a privileged role in being emblematic of truth, beauty, and hope.

I suspect that the way in which we so prize gold is because of its very ambivalence, since our love of wearing it betrays a lust for riches common to us all, as well satisfying our deeper and more soulful yearning for the beautiful, for we are flawed creatures endowed with a sense of exile. Unlike many other metals, it does not oxidize and is therefore constant, surely the reason for it being associated with a half century. Alloys of it can be very pretty and produce green, white, and even purple gold. I have mentioned in a previous post that I do not find gold to be as beautiful as silver or copper. I only have some white gold and rose gold cufflinks and solid gold ones do not particularly interest me, though I would happily receive them as gifts (such as this Lapponia pair in 18 carat . . .). I find gold to be as predictable as it is gaudy, but de gustibus.

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Today’s cufflinks are something of an exception to the rule for me. They are designed by the Danish silversmith Hugo Gruen and bear his maker’s mark of HGr, dating from somewhere around the mid to late 1960s. They evoke a wild flower, such as a crocus, to me. They are heavy, big-boned beasts made out of sterling silver but have a gold wash. Gruen often would design a pair of cufflinks and put a few of the range in a wild gold wash. A gold wash is lighter than gold-plating, which is designed to look, deceitfully, like real gold. With this pair, I love the fact that the silver is almost peeking through the slight golden frosting. All that glistens, then, is not always gold.