Eagle eyed

Along with owls, eagles are easily the most recognizable of all birds. One might confuse a crow with a blackbird with a raven, but an eagle is not to be missed or mistaken. It occupies the highest place in the avian food chain exemplified in the curious fact that it alone, out of all the range of birds of prey, does not cast a backward look before swooping down on its victim. Quite simply, it doesn’t have to exercise any such caution. Unfortunately, in a terrible metaphor for the destructive force that is humanity, its threat is humankind in the form of the elimination of its habitat or  via poisonous chemicals which have been unleashed into the environment. Added to this in the UK is egg collectors indulging in their eccentric and illegal pursuit of oology. It’s a bizarre hobby that could only exist in the UK and was the subject of an excellent article in the New Yorker a few months back.

The different aquiline species eat a range of animals from snakes to sheep and there have been reports of dogs being carried off. In parts of southern Europe, some breeds enjoy turtles, dropping the unfortunate creatures from great heights onto rocks in order to shatter their shells. This enterprising habit led to one of the most unusual alleged deaths in history, that of the Greek playwright Aeschylus in 455 BC, when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock -an entirely natural and understandable error- and released a turtle aimed at his skull. Not content with this quirky demise, fate had another twist in store: the turtle survived unscathed and with its shell intact. There is a helpful illustration of the episode below, from the fifteenth-century Florentine Picture Chronicle by Maso Finguerra. It still doesn’t overshadow the death of the Greek scholar and writer Philitas of Cos, who was so obsessed with erroneous word usage that he forgot to eat during his research and wasted away in around 285 BC. This confirms what many of us have long suspected: pedantry is a health risk. Philitas would have been the ultimate Internet troll.

ImageThe eagle has a venerable tradition of symbolizing nations and deities, featuring on countless coats of arms, flags, and standards from Poland to Mexico. It was the beacon of imperial Rome and the emblem of Jupiter, a fitting sign of colonial aggression being an accomplished predator. Jupiter adopted several animal disguises to come from Olympus and copulate with attractive humans: with Europa he assumed the form of a bull; with Lyda, he was a swan; perhaps the most peculiar is in the form of golden rain which impregnated Danaë, locked in a tower by her husband. There is something quite fitting about carnal lust being literally incarnated in bestial form, but little wonder that the Romans would ultimately reject the seedy and sadistic violence of mythology for the audacious religion of peace and compassion which would flow through its networks like a virus. It was, paradoxically, that great persecutor of Christians, Diocletian, who perhaps did more to facilitate the end of paganism. Diocletian, who ruled as master of the West from 284 to 305, had two radical methods of power: he delegated, ruling with a co-emperor, Maximian named Augustus, and then also two junior emperors, or Caesars; then, he relinquished power in 305, with no coercion to do so, spending his last years tending his garden. It was Diocletian’s unexpected approach which led to the accession of one of the two Caesars, Constantius, to follow him in an uncontested and uncontroversial succession. While Constantius only lived for a few months, this relatively internal stability led to his son to succeed him. This named heir, Constantine, would turn the world on his head with his conversion to Christianity. The eagle would be supplanted by the dove.

ImageJupiter’s tastes were not confined to women and his closest love, exemplified in the fact that he was transported to the heavens and made immortal, alone out of all the god’s lovers, was a beautiful youth named Ganymede. The homoerotic subtext of the myth is not as important as its stress on the homosocial nature of patriarchy; Rome was built on the concept of patria potestas, that every father in society, from the head of the familial unit to the leader of the gods, had authority of life and death over the women and children in his household. Michel Foucault reminds us that this notion evolved directly into the western subordination of women which remains a feature of societies today, albeit subtler than in times past. Rubens’s visually stunning representation of the Rape of Ganymede (1611) -rape here in the old sense of abduction- does not shy away from same-sex sensuality in the close and affectionate grasp of the young man on to the eagle, the quiver of arrows possessing a prominent phallic suggestion. Ganymede, here, seems like a nervous bride before her wedding night rather than the unwillingly kidnap victim of some visual and textual versions. Take the stark counterpoint in Rembrandt’s interpretation of the scene in 1634, below.

ImageNot only is the boy completely unwilling in this painting but his extreme youth -he is a toddler- firmly desexualizes the legend. At the same time, the somber, dark colors evoke menace, as does the evil-looking eagle. The most disturbing element in the painting is to be found in the child’s real distress, for he does more than cry: he actually urinates himself out of fear. Rembrandt’s picture is certainly closer to the savage nature of classical mythology, which took few prisoners over the millennia which it held humans captive to its institutionalized threats.

ImageThe eagle’s reputation has certainly come far since its Roman synonym for dominance. We stand in awe of the size and plumage of this beautiful bird, and the founders of the American Republic adopted the North American bald eagle, above, as the fledgling state’s national emblem in 1782. In doing so, their intention was undoubtedly to create a link with imperial Rome but they unwittingly forged one with Native-American tribes which had venerated this bird as a spiritual messenger between humans and the divine.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are from Taxco, Mexico, a country whose official flag and coat of arms feature an eagle. They’re made out of sterling silver and bear the maker’s mark of Jaimes. They feature a stylized four eagle heads and are rather distinctive, though their age is difficult to estimate since they could date from the 1950s to the 1980s. A reminder, perhaps, that the eagle is timeless. Unless, that is, humans don’t succeed in making it extinct.

Turquoise delight

The name of the colour turquoise comes from the stone that exemplifies it. The gem’s name, in turn, is a medieval English corruption of Turkish, since it was believed to originate in that country. In fact, turquoise is to be found all over the world and is part of the fabric of all of the great and minor cultures in the history of the planet. The range of hues of turquoise, both the colour and the stone, goes from greenish to blueish with the evocatively named celeste being the extreme blue shade and the equally pleasing pearl mystic turquoise marking the end of the greenish dominance. In the gemstone, the scale depends on the degree of copper present, which is why the colour suggests the patina of oxidized copper. It is a stone that does not belong to one region and is quite ecumenical in its scope with strong turquoise traditions among Native Americans, the Aztecs, the American Southwest, the ancient Egyptians (see, for example, the inclusion of turquoise in Tutankhamun’s death mask, below), the Middle East, China, and Europe. It is mined across the world, from Cornwall to Arizona and from Queensland to Chile.

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I’ve always found it a surprising choice for jewellery for two reasons. Firstly, the colour itself can be very attractive but often seems to just miss being garish. Secondly, the stone itself is somewhat fragile and can fracture. I’ll add to these two reasons that the market has been inundated with synthetic turquoise to the point that one is naturally suspicious of its authenticity. However, my own natural prejudices cannot get in the way of the fact that turquoise has a long pedigree of positive symbolism. Tibetan monks often carried it as it gently can change colour over time and it served as a reminder of the wheel of life. Some Native American tribes saw the shades of the sky and the sea in it and thus it represented life itself to them. These natural tropes together with its availability has meant that it has long been used in jewellery. My own favourite use of the gem is in tiaras. The photograph below is of the Persian tiara of Princess Margaret (Queen Elizabeth II’s late sister). The turquoise outshines the diamonds, even though these precious stones are vastly worth more, and the overall effect, somewhat paradoxically, is a natural one.  The Duchess of Cornwall often wears turquoise, including a tiara, and never fails to look stunning in it.

ImageIt is somewhat surprising, given its noble lineage, that there isn’t a particularly strong use of it in Christian art and architecture, with the exception of some Orthodox churches. It has perhaps been eclipsed by the deep blues obtained from lapis lazuli, long used in representations of Our Lady. Islamic art has a much more visible tradition of turquoise and it is often found on mosques, in both the interior and exterior, both the colour and the stone. A particularly striking example is the portal of the St Petersburg Mosque, a building completed in 1921, below. The Wilayah Mosque in Malaysia is crowned with twenty-three composite domes clad with turquoise mosaics. This traditional use is offset by the decidedly modern use of computerized pixel technique to achieve the pattern.

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One tradition attached to turquoise is that it should never be purchased but only received as a gift. This, incidentally, was also a norm that held for cufflinks; a gentleman was never supposed to buy his own pairs. Sometimes iconoclasm is not only a good thing but is also positively to be relished.

ImageToday’s cufflinks have three turquoise cabochons, rather appropriately for Trinity Sunday, set on sterling silver. They carry the maker’s mark of MLV and the three-eagles symbol denoting that they were made in Taxco, Mexico. While we don’t know the name of MLV, he or she is a recognized designer who was active in the 1940 and 1950s, and this pair looks like it dates from the 1950s. MLV loved working with turquoise as most of the pieces that bear this maker’s mark (brooches, wrist cuffs, and rings) incorporate the gem. Since it widely symbolizes healing and protection, turquoise is often associated with guardian angels. It is thus perhaps not a bad thing to have in our lives.