All Saints’ Eve

Today begins the Christian season of Allhallowstide – the three holy days dedicated to remembering the dead: those who have been “hallowed” or sainted, all Christian souls and, in some churches, souls in Hell.   A series of ancient feasts that can be dated to pre-Christian times they combine folk traditions with the liturgical.  In both pagan and Christian mythology there was a night when the barrier between the real world and the spirit world became blurred.  It was believe that on that night the restless souls of the dead wandered the earth – particularly those who had not achieved bliss or at the least purgatory.  To appease the benevolent ghosts candles were lit and graves decked in flowers; to ward off the malevolent spirits grotesque images were placed in windows and on door steps, and loud noises made  to keep them at bay.

A pen and wash drawing of a scabbard was Hans Holbein the younger’s first depiction of  the Dance of Death and is believed to date from 1521.  A left click on either of the two sections will take you to large images of this copy of his work by Swiss engraver Christian von Mechel.  Most of Mechel’s engravings were based on Holbein’s works as seen by Peter Paul Rubens but in this case he owned the original drawing.

In many traditions people donned disguises to fool Death so that should he be stalking the neighbourhood he was unable to identify them and passed them by.   The finality of all manner and stations joining in the final dance to the grave was an ever present image in most communities. 

The last letter of Hans Holbein the younger’s
Dance of Death Alphabet – after the message
of Death the Leveler comes the equally
leveling redemption of the Resurrection.

From the 1300s onward the Dance of Death was a popular subject to both edify the general public and, if possible, scare them on to the path of righteousness.  In line with church doctrine it also made the peasant feel equal to the noble – perhaps it would take the King’s silk robe longer to rot in the grave than the beggar’s rags but eventual all man would “come to dust”.  In a time when death came early, war was constant and violent, and plagues – including the Black Death – emptied entire villages it was a subject of frescoes, paintings, tapestries and engravings.  Often the works were by itinerant church painters but just as often the subject was taken on by known artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Bernt Notke and, perhaps most famously,  Hans Holbein the younger.   The first time he took on the subject around 1521 in a pen and wash drawing  of a scabbard for a dagger.  He was to revisit the subject twice in the next three years with his Great Dance of Death (1522) and his Dance of Death Alphabet (1524).  The original woodblocks were created by Hans Lützelburger and became the source material for books in both Catholic and Protestant countries.  They were also to serve as reference for artists for the next four hundred years.  Countless copies and variations were created using woodblocks, copperplate engraving, ink and oil into our own century.

Wer war der Tor, wer des Weise[r],
Wer der Bettler oder Kaiser?
Ob arm, ob reich, im Tode gleich.

Who was the fool, who the wise 
who the beggar or the Emperor?
Whether rich or poor, all are equal in death

Text from a Totentanz
circa 1460

Back in 2012 I created a video using a 20th century setting of an old English (16th century or earlier) dirge meant to be sung at wakes to accompany the dead on their dance with Death to the gates of Purgatory.   The strange juxtaposition of Buffy Stainte Marie singing Benjamin Britten‘s setting of the Lyke-Wake Dirge fascinated me when I first bought the album back in 1967 and 47 years later still has the power to give me chills.

‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.

Hamlet: Act 3
William Shakespeare

October 31 -1863: The Maori Wars resume as British forces in New Zealand led by General Duncan Cameron begin their Invasion of the Waikato.

Not Your Usual Biscotti

Three years ago this coming October we were in Berlin and visiting the Island Museums; I mentioned at the time that I found the Bode the most interesting of the lot particularly their Renaissance collection.  Late last week I was reminiscing about that trip and going through pictures that I had taken on that visit. I also unpacked a box of books and came upon a little book that had a serendipitous if slightly tenuous connection with a few of those pictures.  The following February we spent a few days in London and at my friend David’s suggestion spent a glorious Saturday morning at the V&A basking in their new Medieval and Renaissance wing.  And at their bookstore I picked up a fascinating little book: Renaissances Secrets by Jo Wheeler.  It contains all sorts of wonderful – you guessed it – Renaissance Secrets.   Illustrated with rarities from the V and A collections it includes recipes and closely guarded secret formulae for a myriad of concoctions once used to create medicines, cosmetics, printing materials, even amulets meant to ward off the plague.  Lip balm, rare paint pigments, stain removers; they are all there as are, of course, aids to the noble art of love making!  And just so you don’t think the Renaissance was all Adoring Magi, Breast-feeding Bambini and Virginal Assumptions here’s an easy to follow cookie recipe (if you can find or afford the ingredients) along with a few of the more “specialized” works from the Bode Renaissance collection.

This lovely ivory carving is an innocent representation of Adam and Eve covering their nakedness in shame.  Or is it?  The look on their faces isn’t exactly one of chagrin and a closer look reveals that their “communal” loin cloth can be removed to unveil heaven only knows what sort of salacious display!


Morsels to excite Venus.
Proven many times and which increase sperm. They do not cause any harm.


  • 3 drams each of walnuts, pine-kernels and pistachio nuts;
  • 3 drams each of powdered seeds of rocket, onion and knotgrass (also known as swine-grass or bloodwort)
  • Half a dram each of cloves, cinnamon and ginger
  • 1.5 ounces of skinned skinks (saltwater lizards) – four should suffice with heads and feet removed and ground to a fine powder
  • 1 ounce of Indian nut (coconut)
  • 1 dram each of long pepper, galangal, seeds of wild asparagus, chickpeas (the red variety)
  • 3 ounces of diasatirion*
  • A dram of ambergris
  • Half a dram of musk
  • 12 ounces of sugar dissolved in rosewater

Make morseletti in the normal way.
*also known as “wolf’s testicles” it was a concoction based on the bulbous roots of an orchid.

And it would appear that after ingesting these biscotti Venus embarked upon a rather elaborate voyage if this little “Triumph of Love” is to be credited. (A left click will enlarge the picture for a closer look)

These biscuits apparently packed quite a punch with most of the ingredients guaranteed to excite lust, particularly the pistachios.  They were known to be “wondrous for stimulating sexual desire” if fattening! But then plump wasn’t a problem in the Renaissance, in fact it was thought of as erotic. Florentine apothecary Stefano Rosselli (whose recipes this is) also stocked a rub which was to be used in the event of impotence.  Rosselli obviously gave the customers what they wanted – or needed!

It would appear this Satyr is in no need of Dottore Rosselli’s magic morsels – and one wonders where these naughty putti’s mothers are. Shouldn’t they be home in bed rather than helping the horny old bugger (litterally) in his depravity?

There is one secret that Mr Wheeler doesn’t divulge in amongst his treasury of formulae and concoction – he may let us in on how Venetian woman turned their hair golden but the oft sought secret of how to turn base metal into gold remains untold.  Given its price on the market these days I was hoping it would be revealed – no such luck!  

01 settembre/September – Sant’Egidio abate

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Bronzino – Limmericks and Holy Pictures

I thought I’d posted more of the enchanting observations on a few of the paintings that were in the Bronzino exhibition that just closed in Firenze. You may recall that Italian author Roberto Piumini wrote doggeral verses in the style popular with the painter and his friends at the Academia and Konrad Eisenbichler used them as his inspiration for English verses. They thought of them as “ways to look at Bronzino”.

I think this is perhaps one of the loveliest paintings I have ever seen of a sleeping child – you almost feel John’s kiss awakening his little cousin.

*“Dear Mary,” Joseph says, “if in a while,
Our little Jesus should awake
And want to eat, I’ll light this little pile
of sticks so you might cook a meal or bake,

But note,” then Joseph adds, “his cousin John
has come to play with him, and when they’re done
Pursuing one another on the lawn
They’ll both be very hungry, for a bun.”

“I’ll bake some sweets for them,” she says and smiles,
“Some buns, some pastries, and a healthy snack.
I’ll make some cookies, too, in various styles.
But where is my flour? Where is that sack?”

Holy Family with Saint John (Panciatichi Maddona) – 1538-40 – was one of five paintings commissioned by the wealthy and influential Bartolomeo Panciatichi.

dice Giuseppe, «se fra poco,
Gesù si sveglierà, a vorrà mangiare,
io accenderò con la legna un bel fuoco,
ma tu, che cos’avrai da cucinare?”

«E poi,»
Giuseppe dice, «è arrivato
anche Giovanni, suo cugino, e sai
che è un bambino molto affamato…
Maria, Maria, cos cusinerai?»

Lei sorride e risponde: «Farò
frittelle di farina, dolci e bionde.»
Vedi un sacco di farina? Io no.
Tu guarda melgio:” dove si nasconde?

As with many painters of the period Bronzino found himself suddenly constrained by the decrees on art that came out of the Council of Trento – decrees that effected not only the spiritual but the physical content of what took place in Catholic churches. Subjects that had once been considered part of the normal Christian iconography were banned and strict use of symbols and groupings were carefully watched by the unsettled church authorities. This simple and beautiful Christ Crucified straddles the two worlds with a severity that is almost Protestant but with all the required iconography demanded by the Council. It was painted for Bartolemeo and Lucrezia Panciatichi, who at the time were suspected of having “Reformationist” leanings and were investigate by the Church until a gentle word from Cosimo caused the authorities to back away.

Christ Crucified – circa 1540 – Bronzino for the Panciatichi chapel.

Around the time that Bronzino became part of a group exploring the virtues of one form of art over the other – painting over sculpture being the most heatedly debated. Certainly this study could have been achieved in wood and polychrome but Bronzino’s technique and artistry has turned it into a “real dead-body”.

*Bel gioco l’altalena, in verità
si v agiù e poi su, alternamente.
Ma vedi? C’è qualcosa che non va
in questa altalena risplendente …

Un angelo la regge con la mano,
e il piccolo di destra porta su:
chi e quello che in basso, scuro e strano,
l’altro, a sinistra, tiene a tire giu?

Forse questa non è un’altalena…
E se un angelo salva l’innocente,
chi sarà quello che, con brutta lena,
trascina l’altro giù, dannatamente?

Saint Michael the Archangel – circa 1525-28 – the fact that it is on canvas, unusual for a time when most paintings were done on wood suggests this may have been a banner made for a confraternity.

A seesaw, wow! That’s lots of fun!
You’re up and down, you laugh and scream.
But look! This seesaw has begun
To go off-balance. See the beam?

An angel holds it in his hand,
And on the right that boy is up,
But on the left a grasping hand
has seized the boy that’s in that cup.

What kind of seesaw could this be?
If that’s an angel helping out
Then who’s that figure that I see
Grabbing the boy who seems to shout?

* Cherci nei Quadri/Hide and Seek
Roberto Piumini – Konrad Eisenbichler
2010 Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze
2010 Alias, Firenze
It may be purchased through their on-line store.

31 gennaio – Sant’Armentario

A Good Friday Meditation

Again one of the small treasures, of so many, in the V&A collection was this altarpiece from Lombardy. Attributed to the del Maino brothers it would have been created in their workshop in Pavia. It was made for Sant’Agostino, Piacenza where it remained until 1841. The predella addresses the Nativity while the upper piece traces the events of the crucifixion. Back in my days as an avid record collector I had the wise counsel of my friend Alan when it came to buying things. Alan worked at Sam the Record Man’s and had a coterie of people that he would advise on what they should buy. If Alan said “buy it” I bought it and was very seldom disappointed. Back in 1975 he suggested that I purchase a Archiv recording of a little known Passion by Francesco Corteccia, a Florentine composer at the time of Cosimo di Medici. As with most Passions written for the period the story is told by the Evangelist (in this case John) and the words of the crowd and meditations between events were sung by a choir. The spoken sections are in Florentine dialect and the choral in Latin. I find the sound of Arnoldo Foà’s voice has a beauty that is as musical as that of the choir.

Unfortunately I had problems with focus on some of these photos so though it is not of the highest quality I still wanted to share it with you as a meditation on the art of the wood sculptor, the composer, the actor and the musicians.

03 aprile – Sabato Santo

… And Carried Him Away, and Delivered Him to Pilate

One of the many pleasures of our recent holiday in London was the chance to take a look at a few of the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our friend David had suggested that they were not to be missed – and as always with David he was on the letter.

We saw perhaps a third of the wonders that are in the vast collection. Of course many of the objects were of a religious nature and many addressed the events being commemorated in the Western Christian faith this week.

I was particularly struck by these three small panels (roughly 46x74x12 cms)that were created in 1579-80 by Giambologna, an artist known for his marble and bronze sculptures. The panels, in red wax on a wooden background, are models for a series of six bronze reliefs on the Passion that were done for the Grimaldi Chapel in San Francesco di Castelletto, Genoa. When the church was demolished in 1815 the bronzes created from the models were moved to the University of Genoa and can be seen there today.

And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate, the governor.
Gospel of Matthew

Then came Jesus forth, wearing a crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate said unto them, Behold the Man!
The Gospel of St. John
… he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person ….
Gospel of St Matthew

The medium used to create the models was beeswax with animal fat added, making the mixture easier to model and adhere. Over time some of the fat has separated and come to the surface which gives the models a slightly shiny appearance.

It appears that only these three models survived as no mention of the other three can be found in any catalogs.

02 aprile – Venerdi Santo