July 12, 2024

Is There a Caladrius in the House?

         My husband and I are both down with covid, so this seems like the right time for a post on the caladrius.  We don’t know all the details of what a caladrius looks like, but we do know it’s a bird with pure white feathers.  Sometimes it seems to look like a dove, but at other times it’s got longer legs and beak like a small heron or egret, and sometimes it’s practically a duck.  But the important thing about it is its magical power.  When someone is ill, the caladrius perches on their sickbed and inspects them.  If the patient is doomed, the caladrius turns its head away and all hope is lost.  However, if the patient can be saved, then the caladrius gazes in their eyes and draws their sickness into itself.  It then flies up to the sun, where the germs (or whatever) are burned away, leaving both the patient and the caladrius pure and healthy once again.
        The caladrius was discovered by the ancient Romans but was enthusiastically embraced by the bestiary-writers of the medieval era.  Of course, most of them never had the chance to see an actual caladrius because they’re very rare and the only people who could actually keep one around were kings.  Still, there are lots of great illustrations of the caladrius at work.  The first ones are the classic iconography: a man is shown lying in bed with the bird sitting at his feet.  Often the man is wearing a crown, and you know you’re a king when you wear your crown even when you’re lying sick in bed.  Heavy is the head, indeed.  (Even though the crown is very common, I’ve got only one in today’s selections because I was going for variety.)  As for the caladrius, sometimes it’s depicted looking at
the patient, and sometimes it’s turned away.
  Some scholars have speculated that whether or not the caladrius is optimistic in its prognosis is correlated to how dire and dismal things actually were in the area at that time in history.  (I think this would be a fabulous topic for a thesis I don’t intend to write, but if you do, please let me know your results!)  I love how miserably ill the king looks in the first image - and I’m not just being cruel and heartless to laugh at his expression, because I know he’ll recover fully.
         However, sometimes the artist includes both options in the picture, no doubt sort of like the little diagram in the instruction sheet of the covid test that shows the difference between positive and negative results.  I like how in image three the patients have the facial expression appropriate to their diagnosis.
        My next little collection shows things  a little differently.  In the first one (image five) it looks like a doctor - or perhaps the Keeper of the Caladrius - has brought in the bird to examine the patient.  In image six the patient looks a bit corpse-like, but his wife(?) is smiling at him, weak with relief, as the caladrius flies up toward the sun, bearing the man’s illness away with it.
        As for image seven, I included it because I love the way the caladrius and the patient are staring at each other.  The bird seems to be smiling slightly, but the man looks like he doesn’t appreciate the scrutiny.  He ought to be grateful, as the alternative is shown right there in the same panel, with a different colored background in a sort of “Sliding Doors” scenario.
        And image eight is here because I was trying to find more wood block print illustrations of the caladrius.  Most of the ones I found just show a completely generic-looking bird, not doing anything distinctive.  That style of illustration occurs in many of the hand-illuminated bestiaries, as well, in which surprisingly often the caladrius isn’t even white, which is its one distinctive physical feature.  So I’ve ignored all of those pictures, because they’re no fun.  This wood block print, on the other hand, is much more detailed and skillful than the others in the book and I suspect the printer happened to have it around from another project.  This patient is clutching a crucifix, and since the bird has turned its back, that’s really the only option left to him.
        As for our plague house, I don’t think we need a caladrius.  Obviously it would be lovely to have the sickness instantly drawn out of us and carried away to the sun, but I feel pretty confident that we’ll pull through eventually in any case.


[Pictures: Caladrius, illumination from Bestiary, 1226-1250 (Image from Bodleain Libraries);

Caladrius, illumination from Bestiary, 1236-1250 (Image from British Library);

Caladrius, illumination from Bestiary, 1200-1225 (Image from Bibliothèque nationale de France);

De Charadrio, wood block print from Tou Hagiou Patros (Physiologos) by Saint Epiphanius, 1587 (Image from Biodiversity Heritage Library);

Caladrius, illumination from Bestiary, 1275-1300 (Image from Bibliothèque nationale de France);

Caladrius, illumination from Bestiary, 1225-1250 (Image from Bibliothèque nationale de France);

Caladrius, illumination from the Peterborough Psalter and Bestiary, 14th c. (Image from Cambridge University);

Caladrius, wood block print from The noble lyfe & natures of man by Laurence Andrew, 1521 (Image from Internet Archive).]

July 8, 2024

Saint George Strikes Again

         I previously did a post about Saint George slaying the Dragon, which you should go ahead and see here: St George’s Day.  In it I have a wide variety of wood block prints of the scene, ranging from around 1504 to 1941.  But in the more than ten years since that post, I’ve collected a bunch more prints on the theme, so here’s another collection.
        Knights killing dragons has long been a very popular theme for artists, with Saint George being the most popular one of all.  The iconography tends to be fairly standardized: George is most often riding a horse and plunging his lance down the throat of the dragon on the ground below.  Often the damsel in distress is shown in the background.  Sometimes you can see George’s shield or pennant with his cross on it, although of course in most wood block prints it’s black-and-white instead of red.
        Today’s first three examples are all very standard, but they have some interesting details.  Number one, by Albrecht Dürer, has the princess peering out from behind a boulder, plus some bones scattered around the ground to demonstrate just how dangerous the dragon is.  I love its feet and long tail corkscrewing away into the distance.  The dragons are often quite small, as in today’s second piece, but Dürer’s dragon is as large as the horse, which is quite respectable.  As for the second piece, it shows the princess safely away on a clifftop, praying for the knight’s victory, but the most interesting thing about this one is the background.  Wood block prints of this era seldom have dark backgrounds, but this one does a great job using the characteristics of relief printing for a nicely speckled dark ground and a patterned background that is reminiscent of the the patterns in hand-painted illuminations.  These first two are both from the early sixteenth century, so you can see by the comparison why Dürer was considered such a master!
        As for the third piece, it’s quite small and rough, with flaws in the image where the wood block presumably was cracked and damaged.  The dragon, however, is kind of adorable, with wide, happy eyes and a big grin.
        The next examples are also quite crude.  Here are a series of three woodcuts from an eighteenth century chapbook, and they show three stages in Saint George’s battle: he rides up and greets the princess as the dragon rushes in from the left.  The center is the standard iconography as George delivers the fatal thrust, and then the third image shows George having cut off the dragon’s head to bring back as a trophy.  There’s a continuity error where his horse has changed color, and I think it would have looked better if it were black all along for a punch of contrast.
        Next to those is a modern ikon in an interesting skritchy carving style.  I like the saint’s halo and the glow of little lines making a sort of halo around the entire horse.  The dragon is another funny one, but it’s got its tail around the horse’s leg so if it can survive just a few minutes longer it might bring George down!
        The last two pieces today are the most dramatic of all.  I particularly love the dragon in piece #6.  He looks like he’s actually giving George a serious fight, having broken off the lance and spewing smoke.  He’s got an interesting forked tail, as well.  As for the knight, he doesn’t seem to be wearing armor or using a saddle, although he’s got quite the extravagantly plumed helmet.  And the final piece puts a modern twist on the whole thing by mounting Saint George on a motorcycle.  To balance that touch, the rest of the composition is very traditional, although carved in a rough expressionistic style.  I love this twist on the traditional version.
        As I said in my previous post on this topic, I’d rather see happy healthy dragons than glory in the violence of slaughter, but if I set aside my love of dragons and remember them as the representations of evil that they used to be, I’ll leave you once again with the quotation from G.K. Chesterton: Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.


[Pictures: Saint George, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1504-5 (Image from The British Museum);

Saint George on horseback, wood block print by anonymous Italian artist, 1519 (Image from The Met);

Saint George of England, frontispiece of The most illustrious History of the Seven Champions of Christendome by Richard Johnson, 1661 (Image from Yale University Library);

Three woodcuts from “The Life and Death of St. George,” 18th c., from Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century by John Ashton, 1882 (Images from Internet Archive);

Ikon, wood block print by Michael Aggelaki (Image from eikastikon);

Saint George and the Dragon, wood block print by Guiseppe Scolari, 1550-1600 (Image from Art Institute Chicago);

Victory. Saint George on motorcycle, woodcut by Igor Koutsenko, 21st c? (Image from Saatchi Art).]

July 3, 2024

Frances Gearhart's Block Prints

         The Gearhart sisters lived together in Pasadena, California, where they never married and often collaborated.  The youngest, Edna, was a painter, poet, and author, while the middle sister, May, was most known for etchings.  But for this blog I’m focussed on the oldest sister, Frances (USA, 1869-1958) who did block prints.  Frances was largely self-taught, but she apparently took a summer class with Morley Fletcher and was influenced by her sisters, who studied with Arthur Wesley Dow.  She certainly was also influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and the exhibitions of Japanese block prints that were making a splash in the art world at the time.  You can see a little more about this background in a previous post that features another of Gearhart’s woodblock prints: Gearhart’s Sky.
        Although she made some black and white prints, Frances Gearhart became famous for her color wood block prints.  The vast majority of her pieces depict landscapes of California, which means there are certainly a lot of recurring themes: sky, mountains, ocean…  There are also some recurring themes in her composition, and I start with two common compositions.  One is a low horizon with a large sky and interesting clouds over the landscape.  Gearhart does beautiful skies, with bold clouds and subtle colors.  In the case of this first piece, the low landscape shows a meandering river leading to a lake or arm of the ocean between distant mountains which melt into the clouds and sky.  The colors are especially beautiful.
        The second piece is an example of another common motif: magnificent trees in front of a beautiful vista.  In this case we’re looking down to the sea.  You can see clearly in this one how Gearhart uses the Japanese style of painting watercolor ink onto her blocks in gradients.
        The third piece splits the compositional difference by adding a dramatic tree to the large-skied view across a bay.  This time the weather is overcast with rushing, busy clouds gathering.  The muted colors are masterfully selected to evoke incoming rain.
        Another characteristic of Gearhart’s work is that her landscapes don’t usually include people or even signs of people.  However, there are exceptions, and this fourth piece includes a very dramatic bridge.  The California landscape requires some spectacular engineering to make it accessible to humans, so in some sense the fact that Gearhart can show us all the other beautiful views implies the existence of roads and bridges to get her there.  Personally, I don’t usually like to include people in my landscapes, either, but I do love this bridge, which springs from the sides of the streams much like the trees that Gearhart loves.  The background is only faintly evoked, but the rocks and ripples of the foreground are much bolder.
        Next up is a mountain view which demonstrates another trick that Gearhart often uses.  The final, darkest block of the piece is not black but dark blue, which gives an interesting effect.  Also interesting in this piece is that the distant mountain is almost more detailed than the foreground, at least in terms of the number and complexity of colors.
        The final piece has a different color palette, warmer and higher-contrast.  The yellow sky and yellow greens combine with the very black shadows to look like afternoon of a hot, still day.
        Although Gearhart depicted California throughout the year, I’ve picked some images that seem very summery to me, and make me want to get out and take a hike!


[Pictures: This Joyous World, wood block print by Frances Gearhart, 1928;

Above the Sea, wood block print by Gearhart, ca. 1932;

Rain Tomorrow, wood block print by Gearhart, ca. 1930;

Below the Bridge, wood block print by Gearhart, 1920;

High Country, wood block print by Gearhart, ca. 1927;

A Shrine to Pan, wood block print by Gearhart, ca. 1930 (All images from Harold Leitenberg’s page on Frances Gearhart).]