January 14, 2020

10 Dragons, 1000 Posts

        This is my 1000th blog post.  (Do posts work like paper cranes, granting me a wish for peace now that I’ve reached 1000?  Well, I can always wish.)  To celebrate the blog I am sharing a selection of some of my favorite dragons that I’ve discovered in my research into bestiaries.  How about 10 dragons, celebrating 100 posts each?
        These images range from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, and the first dragon, with its delightfully bird-like build and leafy tail, is the earliest of this bunch.  The second dragon has remarkably beautiful wings, and it should be noted that more than half of these dragons have feathered wings, rather than the leathery bat-like wings considered standard today.  It also has a remarkably beautiful background and borders.  (Remember that you can click on the pictures to see them bigger.)
        The next looks like it would be right at home in the 1930s instead of the 1430s, and the one beside it is actually just a marginal decoration rather than an illustration of any creature in particular.  I love that it’s breathing foliage instead of fire.  The fifth is a scitalis, which is a kind of serpent notable for its wondrous markings.  Presumably it should have been portrayed as a snake, sans legs or wings, but medieval bestiaries have a tendency to turn all sorts of serpents into dragons, and I’m not complaining.
        The yellow and orange dragon with the head like a puppy dog is part of the illustration of the peridexion tree of India.  This tree repels dragons, so that any doves that stay within its branches are safe from the predations of dragons.  It also sits upon a lovely background design.
        The next dragon, with proper batwings and interestingly webbed feet, is another marginal decoration, and the multicolored beast on gold is another scitalis.  I included the brown dragon below for its goofy grimace.  You can see at once that it was painted by the same artist who made the goofily grimacing malacomorph I featured four years ago.  In fact, if you search the manuscript (link in the credits) you will be amazed by how almost every creature on earth can be depicted with a goofy grimace.  Goofy grimaces must be the superpower of that particular fourteenth-century artist.
        And finally, an amphisbaena, a double-headed serpent.  Like the scitalises, this one has sprouted gratuitous legs and wings.  Speaking of legs, however, while the serpents may have more legs than expected, the dragons have fewer.  There are certainly some medieval dragons with four legs, but not all that many, and I haven’t included any in this celebratory collection.  The dragon/wyvern distinction  hadn’t been invented yet.
        Well, I hope you enjoy these dragons, which have certainly delighted me!  And I hope you've enjoyed this blog over the past 1000 posts.

[Pictures: Dragon, illustration from English Bestiary, 4th quarter of the 12th century (Image from the British Library);
Dragon, illumination from Franco-Flemish Bestiary, c 1270 (Image from J. Paul Getty Museum);
Dragon from Bestiarius Philippi Taeoniensis, 14th century (Image from Kongelige Bibliotek);
Marginal decoration from Hebrew Festival prayer book, Italian, 3rd quarter of the 15th century (Image from the British Library);
Scitalis, illumination from English Bestiary, 1226-1250 (Image from Bodleian Libraries);
Dragon and Peridexion Tree, illumination from French Bestiary, 13th century (Image from Bibliotheque Nationale de France);
Bas-de-page illustration of a dragon from the Queen Mary Psalter, 1310-1320 (Image from the British Library);
Scitalis, illumination from the Aberdeen Bestiary, c 1200 (Image from University of Aberdeen);
Dragon, illumination from Der naturen bloeme by van Maerlant, c 1350 (Image from National Library of the Netherlands);
Amphisbaena, illustration from Bestiary, 1236 - c 1250 (Image from the British Library).]

January 10, 2020

Cordel Literature - and Art

        I have just discovered the existence of the Literatura de Cordel, “string literature,” of the northeastern regions of Brazil.  It is a tradition of pamphlets sold by vendors that hang them from lines of string for display (hence the name).  The contents of the pamphlets are poems, usually of folkloric stories of romance, adventure, battles and bandits, and folk tales, but also sometimes about current events.  They are also usually illustrated with a wood block print on the cover.  They come out of the oral tradition and were often read aloud to illiterate audiences, sometimes performed by the authors themselves, who are considered to be in the tradition of troubadours.  The rise of literacy, as well as the internet, has made some shifts to these traditions, but it is still going strong.  When I first heard about this, I was fascinated to discover that there is an active and living version of the
chapbook tradition that was widespread in English-speaking countries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but is now extinct there.  But for my interest here today, the important thing is the block prints for the covers.
        You can see that most of these prints, just like those of other chapbook traditions, are pretty crude, both in the carving and in the actual printing.  Most of them don’t have much in the way of perspective or full scenery, focussing on a single image with little or no background.  Many have uneven inking.  On the other hand, the peacock is quite detailed, and the guitarist stands in front of a cityscape with sophisticated angles and shadows.  Even the more simplistic images have their charm, however.  The man picking money from a tree is full of humor, and the goat really pleases
me with its boldness.  As all good covers should do, these tempt me to find out more about the story - although I know no Portuguese, and the internet has not always provided me with plausible translations.  The man in the tree, for example, appears to be dumping something on the jaguar below, but although I can see “adventures,” “ashtray” and “jaguar” in the title, I can’t figure out exactly how they fit together!
        The popularity of the genre is such that some of the artists (many of whom are also authors) can make a living at the craft, and a few have been embraced by Art World dealers and galleries.  I plan to feature some of that work in another post, but today I’ve limited myself to actual cordel literature covers.



[Pictures: cordel pamphlets (Image from Obvious);
A Cabra Misteriosa (The Mysterious Goat), wood block print by José Costa Leite (Image from British Museum);
Pé de Dinheiro do Banorte, wood block print by Jeronimo;
Rodolfo Coehlo Cavalcante, the King of Cordel, wood block print by MFS;
As Aventuras do Amarelo Joao Cinzeiro Papa Onça, wood block print unsigned;
O Romance do Pavao Misterioso (The Romance of the Mysterious Peacock), wood block print by ABA;
Libertaçao dos Reféns Americanos do Cativeiro do Iran (Liberation of the American Hostages from the Captivity of Iran), wood block print by Minelvino Francisco Silva (Images from HERE).]

January 7, 2020

Upcoming Bestiary Talk

        On Thursday I will be giving a presentation on “The Fantastic Bestiary,” which is my not-particularly-subtle pun with two meanings of fantastic: “really great” and “imaginative or fanciful.”  The thing that gets me so excited about medieval bestiaries is not just the wonderful creatures or just the quirky illustrations or just the strange “facts,” but the blending of so many different fascinating facets: art, science, mythology, morality, history, literature…  It’s a veritable smorgasbord of Interesting Things.  The title slide of my talk gives a sort of table of contents, and you can see that I’ll be trying to cover a range of all the good stuff that goes into medieval bestiaries, and then, of course, how I tried to take all that good stuff and adapt it into my own bestiary.
        In putting together the talk and slides I’ve really been going a little crazy, spending weeks scouring through about 80 on-line digitized manuscripts and incunabula, comparing creatures and contents, and selecting my favorite illustrative examples.  Obviously it’s been a labor of love, since otherwise it couldn’t possibly be worth the amount of time I’ve spent, and I’ve indulged many a fascinating tangent along the way.  I’m just astonished and grateful that there are so many digitized works available to me - 20 years ago this sort of research, encompassing rare works from about two dozen different libraries and museums, would have been extremely difficult and expensive for a scholar, and utterly unthinkable for an amateur like me.
        If you do happen to be local to the greater Boston area, and available during the day, the presentation will be at North Hill in Needham, Thursday, January 9, at 2:00pm.  If not, I do hope to be sharing at least a few highlights in coming blog posts.

[Pictures: Title Slide with three dragons;
A collection of griffins from 13 bestiaries, demonstrating a wide range of artistic talent (or lack thereof).]

January 3, 2020

Happy New Year!

        As we enter a new year and a new decade, gates and doorways seem like an appropriate metaphor, so I have three block prints of portals for you today.  Two are by artists I’ve featured before, and the third is new to me.  So, we start with this wood block print by Bruno da Osimo, showing one of the ancient gates through the Roman wall of the town of Osimo.  No, it’s not a coincidence that the artist and the town have the same name.  Bruno chose to call himself after his hometown, and recorded many images of his local landscapes, as well.  I love the variety of textures in this piece, and the way the path curves as it enters so that we get only a glimpse of further buildings beyond.  That's certainly how I feel entering a new year!







        This huge fancy doorway by Herbert Pullinger is an interesting blend of detailed areas and rough areas.  The ornate wrought iron filigree is incredibly detailed, but most of the people are mere silhouettes.  The words above the door are carefully rendered in both black and white according to the fall of light, but are completely blanked out in large areas.  Pullinger is capturing lighting so strong and harsh that shadows black out all detail and sunlight bleaches out all detail to white.
        Finally, a gate by Rebecca Hearle.  This one uses four colors of ink (plus paper), and the contrast here is between the careful details of the gate and the very simple background.  I get the impression that this is a portrait of a real gate somewhere, lovingly recorded.  Like Osimo, Hearle also celebrates scenes of her own home, in her case the Wash and Fens of East Anglia.
        As you step through into this next decade, I wish you joy wherever you can find it, strength whenever you need it, and hope to guide the way.

[Pictures: Porta Musone, wood block print by Bruno da Osima, 1940s;
The Iron Gates, wood engraving by Herbert Pullinger, 1957 (Image from Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts);
Fenland Gate, lino block print by Rebecca Hearle (Image from her web site).]