Wednesday, 30 April 2014

“Walpurgis-Eve—April 30 ... Horror is unleashed, but I must not weaken"

30 April: in Northern and Central Europe, Walpurgis Night is celebrated on the eve of May Day.

“Walpurgis-Eve—April 30 ... Horror is unleashed, but I must not weaken. The storm has broken with pandaemoniac fury, and lightning has struck the hill three times, yet the hybrid, malformed villagers are gathering within the cromlech. I can see them in the almost constant flashes. The great standing stones loom up shockingly, and have a dull green luminosity that reveals them even when the lightning is not there. The peals of thunder are deafening, and every one seems to be horribly answered from some indeterminate direction. As I write, the creatures on the hill have begun to chant and howl and scream in a degraded, half-simian version of the ancient ritual. Rain pours down like a flood, yet they leap and emit sounds in a kind of diabolic ecstasy. “Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!” (H.P. Lovecraft “The Diary of Alonzo Typer“)

Luis Ricardo Falero (1851 - 1896) "Witches on the Sabbath" (1878)*

Walpurgis or Saint Walburga or Vaouburg, probably the niece of St Boniface and daughter of an 8th century King of Wessex was called upon for protection against black magic and one of her feast days is May 1st, when her relics had been transferred. Festivals on the eve of her feast began in the High Middle Ages. Since she is a Holy Helper against the plague, purification rituals like walking between two fires survived in honour of Walpurgis, as well as some rather saucy stunts to ensure fertility of man and beast.

A facsimile from a series of postcards with imagery from Goethe’s “Faust” and the “Walpurgis Night” scene that shaped the style of popular imaginings of the Grand Witches‘ Sabbath on the Brocken (around 1900)

The old Beltane festivals shine through the fabric of the early modern celebrations of the Walpurgisnacht in the Netherlands and Germany, Valborgsmässoafton in Sweden, Valpuržina noc in Czechia or Vappu in Finland. April 30th was once the beginning of summer and Beltane one of the four Celtic seasonal festivals and a night when the otherworld and this world came close together and the spirits found it easier to cross over and play mischief with hapless mortals. Goethe’s “Faust” and his “Walpurgisnacht” established the idea for a contemporary imagination and illustrated the idea of witches from all over the world coming to the Blocksberg or Brocken in the Harz mountain range to celebrate the most important Witches Sabbath of the year, dancing and making merry among themselves and with the creatures of the netherworlds that made their appearance as well.

Fritz Roeber (1851 - 1924): "Walpurgisnacht" (1910) another scene inspired by Goethe's "Faust"

May Day usually dispels the horrors of Walpurgis Night and all over the northern hemisphere, mortals celebrate spring and the coming of summer, often with rituals that still hint at the more saucy aspects of the old religions.

* Depicted above is the Spanish painter Luis Ricardo Falero’s (1851 – 1896) imagination of Walpurgis Night. Falero was committed on a certain variety of Academic Art, and usually depicted the nude female form in different fantastical settings, always walking a thin line between high and pin-up art and responding to the late Victorian demand for sultry eroticism in the guise of highly detailed mythological, orientalistic or historical paintings, usually known as salon art.

And more on Walpurgis Night on:

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma

29 April 1848, the Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma was born in Kilimanoor in Kerala.

“Who knows if these very pictures, now painted for maharajas, will not find their way to the museums one day." (Raja Ravi Varma)

Raja Ravi Varma’s imagination of King Shantanu 
courting the fisherman’s adopted daughter Satyavati, 
a complex story told in the Devi Bhagavata Purana (1890)

It was a sad fact that by mid-19th century most of the schools of Indian painting across the sub-continent were virtually dead, sometimes already for centuries. Only Tanjore and Mysore artists in the southwest fared better, usually with depicting religious motives of Hindu gods, goddesses and saints that served as devotional icons in unique styles that had developed at the Maratha court of Thanjavur during the 1600s, incorporating influences of Deccani, Vijayanagar, Maratha and European styles, in a strict iconographic formalism however, later accommodating to the taste of the new colonial rulers insofar as accounts of the local landscape, animals and festivals were painted in the Tanjore style, as decorations and souvenirs. Most contemporary European art historians cast a cold eye on Indian art, especially according to the prevalent chauvinism after the failed Indian Rebellion or First War of Independence of 1857 and declared Indian art in toto for dead – to be revived and newly shaped and structured with European values by establishing art schools, in Calcutta and Madras as early as 1854, Bombay followed in 1858 and Lahore, headed by Rudyard Kipling’s father John Lockwood Kipling in 1878. Modern Indian painting was about to evolve and find its own expressions.

Raja Ravi Varma: "Woman holding a Fruit" (around 1890)

It was a Tanjore artist who taught young Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran the traditional style in Madurai Chithirakara veddhi, Artist's street, in Travancore in the state of Kerala. And then the European influence captured the young man and he took lessons in oil painting and the common Academic style from a local Anglo-Dutch painter, the otherwise unknown Mr Theodor Jenson – who would have been completely forgotten, if his young student from Kerala would not have come up with the idea to blend both styles and move traditional Tanjore towards Academic art and relocate Hindu gods and goddesses from the heavens to earthly landscapes, quite a shock for traditional believers. European audiences appreciated Ravi’s approach and at the age of 25, he won his first award at Vienna, and with the growing interest of Europe and, to a certain extent, the Americas, in Indian spiritualism, a series of further distinctions followed, such as three gold medals bestowed upon him in Chicago in 1893. Ten years later, he changed his name into Raja Ravi Varma, while his imaginations already had become an integral part of depicting stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. And while he is almost completely forgotten in the West, he remains a popular and influential artist in India who helped Indian art on its way into the 20th century.

More about Satyavati on:

and Raja Ravi Varma on:

Monday, 28 April 2014

“Awake, bold Bligh! the foe is at the gate!" - The Bounty Mutiny

28 April 1789, 225 years ago, the Bounty mutineers, led by the vessel’s master’s mate Fletcher Christian, set their captain, Lt William Bligh, and 18 loyal members of the crew adrift in a 23’ launch in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.
“Awake, bold Bligh! the foe is at the gate! / Awake! awake!- Alas! it is too late! / Fiercely beside thy cot the mutineer / Stands, and proclaims the reign of rage and fear. / Thy limbs are bound, the bayonet at thy breast; / The hands, which trembled at thy voice, arrest; / Dragged o'er the deck, no more at thy command  / The obedient helm shall veer, the sail expand; / That savage Spirit, which would lull by wrath / Its desperate escape from Duty's path, / Glares round thee, in the scarce believing eyes / Of those who fear the Chief they sacrifice: / For ne'er can Man his conscience all assuage, / Unless he drain the wine of Passion- Rage.” (Lord Byron “The Island”)

Robert Dodd’s (1748–1816) engraving “The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and part of the officers and crew adrift from HMAV Bounty, 29 April 1789“, 1790.

If you do it, do it properly. Mutinies were exceedingly rare, despite often very harsh conditions, especially on board of warships. In 1797 though, two complete squadrons of the Royal Navy went on strike, even proclaimed a “floating republic” and one of the ships involved in the mutinies, first at Spithead, then in the Nore was HM ship-of-the-line “Dictator”, commanded by “that Bounty Bastard”, Captain William “Breadfruit” Bligh. And despite his obviously immense skills at sailing and fighting a warship – half a year after the Nore Mutiny, Bligh engaged three enemy ships-of-the-line during the Battle of Camperdown and his “Director” captured the Dutch flagship “Vrijheid” while Nelson praised him for his ability and courage as commander of HMS “Glatton” during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 – mutiny seems to have been an integral part of Bligh’s life. He faced the next one during his time as Governor during the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales.

“The arrest of Governor Bligh” during the Rum Rebellion, contemporary Australian watercolour 

Bligh had a bit of an acidic tongue and his former friend, master’s mate and later acting XO of His Majesty’s Armed Vessel “Bounty” was the first to suffer, but “Breadfruit Bligh’s” image of being a Tartar of a captain is often confused with the rather psychopathic commanders of HMS “Pandora”, the frigate that was sent to Tahiti to round up the mutineers and HMS “Hermione”, the only other single ship that mutinied in the Royal Navy during the Age of Sail. Bligh was actually a far more lenient disciplinarian than many other captains, but keeping up a resemblance of military discipline against the temptations of a South Sea paradise was simply beyond his doing. He was no James Cook after all is said and done. His open boat voyage from Tahiti to Timor after the revolt on “Bounty” over 3,618 nautical miles with the loss of only one of his 18 loyal crewmen during the 47-day voyage stands out as a singular feat throughout the seafaring world though.

Robert Cleveley (1747-1809): "The attempt by Capt. Bligh of the Bounty who with 18 sailors had been set adrift in an open boat on April 28th, 1789, to land on Tofoa".

Sunday, 27 April 2014

“Put up your sword." - the infamous “Duel of the Mignons” in 1578

27 April 1578 in Paris, the infamous “Duel of the Mignons” was fought between the dainty ones of King Henry III near Porte Saint Honoré.
“Put up your sword. If this young gentleman / Have done offence, I take the fault on me: / If you offend him, I for him defy you.“ (William Shakespeare) 

An imagination of the duel that appeared in “Paris illustré” in 1885

Trial by battle and single combat were not that much of grey prehistory in the late 16th century and the toxic atmosphere in France during the Wars of Religion gave plenty of reason for duels, beyond personal defamation, and more than 4.000 men slaughtered each other on the field of honour between 1575 and 1625. The partisans of King Henry III and the Duke of Guise in their rivalry for power might have had, not unusual for the days of the High Renaissance, a classical antique idea for going at each others’ throats over a minor slight, the Battle of the Horatii and the Curatii. Livy hands down the story of triplets from Rome and Alba Longa who fought it out to settle a war between the two cities during the 7th century BCE. And thus, three of the current favourites of the king and three of the discarded ones, now the Duke’s men, decided that Jacques de Lévis remark about a lady of Charles de Balzac’s acquaintance being “rather fair than chaste” called for blood – not because of the said lady’s honour but for de Balzac’s implied dealings with loose females.

Jaques-Louis David and Anne-Louis Girodet:" The Oath of the Horatii" (1784)

Not that the reputation of the King’s “Mignons”, his dainty ones, wasn’t bad enough already. Generally regarded as effeminate, overly well-dressed, bejewelled and scented, reputed of various affairs with men and women, most of the current and the ex-Mignons were nonetheless battle-hardened veterans and all of them had been in the wars. The duel itself was supposed to be fought between de Lévis and Balzac, de Maugiron and d’Arcès volunteered to be the seconds of the King’s darling while d’Aydie and de Schomberg accompanied de Balzac. The meeting was arranged to take place at 5’o clock in the morning and as soon as the duellers and their seconds arrived at the Marché aux Chevaux a general melee broke out and all of the men went each other, even though the seconds were actually supposed to be there to ensure a fair fight only.

Well dressed monarch with gascon custom at his court: King Henry III of France
(portrait by François Clouet (1510 - 1572))

All of them really meant business. Schomberg was killed on the spot by d’Arcès who was disfigured from a blow to the head for the rest of his life, Maugiron was dispatched by Aydie who succumbed to his injuries on the following day, de Lévis received 19 blows from Balzac’s sword and it took him a month to die with the King allegedly never leaving his side in hospital. He complaint though that the fight was a bit unfair since he had forgot his dagger and Balzac took advantage of that. Balzac himself was the only one who came off with only a light wound and could pursue Guise’s interests and fair, unchaste females until his death in 1599. The general public was horrified about the duel that ended in a battle royal, speaking of Russian or even Gascon customs among the courtiers that underlined the point of King Henry’s enemies of their monarch’s unfitness for ruling France.

And more on:

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

“We want Realism's wealth of experience and Symbolism's depth of feeling." - Franz Ritter von Stuck

23 April 1863, the German symbolist painter and sculptor Franz Ritter von Stuck was born in Tettenweis in Lower Bavaria.
“We want Realism's wealth of experience and Symbolism's depth of feeling. All art is a problem of balance between two opposites.“ (Cesare Pavese)

Franz von Stuck’s “Sünde” (Sin) from 1893

Symbolism had a tendency to be quite risqué and its variant, the Decadent movement was usually not acceptable in polite society – at least not in plain view. It is all the more remarkable that Symbolist artists and their cousins, the representatives of Art Nouveau of the late 19th and early 20th century, managed to have considerable public success in a society that was superficially determined by rigid moral standards. During the years when Sigmund Freud and his disciples became the archaeologists of the soul, artists like Lovis Corinth, Fernand Khnopff and Félicien Rops paralleled their findings with the depiction of archetypical images and scenes, sometimes of the rather disturbing variant. And almost always with their sujets in the nekkid. Nevertheless, the leading exponents of the movements often became “art princes”, literally, like Franz von Stuck, who was ennobled for his artistic achievements and became a professor of Munich’s prestigious art academy.

Franz von Stuck:"Dancers" (1896)

Heavily influenced by the works of the Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin, co-founder of the Munich Secession and walking a thin line between being just pig-headed with artistic freedom and commercial success, von Stuck designed trading cards for Stollwerck’s famous chocolate factory and posters for various public events and some total artworks in the case of public buildings as well as creating works of art that pioneered modernity. His legacy is equally ambiguous. While famous modernists like Kandinsky and Paul Klee studied with him in Munich, he was one of the few artists who did not paint blood and soil and historicist glorifications of war who wasn’t banned during the Third Reich. Quite the reverse, the GröFaZ allegedly loved von Stuck’s paintings and his Reichsmarschall adorned his country estate with his sculptures, along with looted art from all over Europe. After the war, reception and appraisal of Franz von Stuck’s oeuvre fortunately went back to normal and he is cherished as one of the most important Symbolist artists and pointsman for 20th century art.

Franz von Stuck: "Batsheba" (1912)

And more on:

“I have been where warriors wrestled" - The Battle of Clontarf in 1014

23 April 1014, 1.000 years ago on a Good Friday near Dublin, Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, defeated a Viking-Irish coalition at the Battle of Clontarf.

“I have been where warriors wrestled, / High in Erin sang the sword, / Boss to boss met many bucklers. / Steel rung sharp on rattling helm; / I can tell of all their struggle; / Sigurd fell in flight of spears; / Brian fell, but kept his kingdom /Ere he lost one drop of blood.“ (Hostfinn’s song about the Battle of Clontarf from Njál’s Saga)

A Gjermundbu helmet,  typical headgear for a well-off Norse warrior or successful mercenary around the time of the Battle of Clontarf*

Around the year 1000, the Norse had more or less become an integral part of the tribes inhabiting Ireland and the descendants of the Vik, who had started out as raiders in the early 9th century had long since become traders, farmers and founders of cities, such as Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick, and warred with the other petty kings for supremacy on the island, as well as making an occasional grab for a crown in England. When Brian Bóruma Mac Cennétig was crowned High King of the Irish in 1002 and tried to consolidate his rule, the Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin, Sigtrygg Silkbeard found himself joining the rebellion of his uncle Máel Mórda mac Murchada, the King of Leinster. The alliance was already defeated once by Sigtrygg’s father-in-law Brian Boru in 999 at Glenmama, and now, 15 years later, they faced each other again at Clontarf, Brian with his army of 7.000 from Munster, Connaught and his shifty allies from Meath and Máel Mórda, his Leinstermen, Sigtrygg, his Norse-Gaels from Dublin, along with Norse allies from the Orkneys and the Isle of Man, about 7.000 men as well.

What the Battle of Clontarf might have looked like if it had been fought in the 17th century:
Hugh Frazer (1795 - 1865): "The Battle of Clontarf" (1826)

On a Good Friday, the two armies met near the beach at Clontarf and what we actually know about the battle is full of legendary accounts, but few hard facts. The Norse contingent seemed to have tried to sail their ships around Brian Borù’s host to fall into his flank, the manoeuver was discovered, ritual insults and single combat might have preceded the actual clash of the two hosts, like a battle of the Heroic Age of the old Celts, magic banners that granted their bearers victory but a sudden death as well, were held aloft and then the slaughter began. The Norse and the Dubliners in their mail coats seem to have been better equipped then the Gaels, the fighting was remembered as especially loud an bloody and finally Norse-Gaels and their allies broke and were pushed back to the ships and many drowned in the rising tide. The men from Munster had won the day. King Brian Boru was killed in his tent shortly after the battle ended by the Manxman Brodir, though, Máel Mórda along with Brian’s son Murchad and his grandson Tordhelbach had been killed in battle as well.

One of the set of six stamps by Victor Ambrus from the Isle of Man Post Office issued to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf**

According to the Irish sources, the Leinster-Norse alliance had lost 6.000 of theirs at Clontarf while Brian’s coalition’s losses amounted to 1.600, probably even 4.000 men. The power of Brian’s clan was as effectively broken as was that of the Norse-Gaels, but Sigtrygg Silkbeard continued to rule Dublin until 1036 and Brian’s predecessor as High King, Máel Sechnaill, still ruler of Meath, assumed the high kingship again with the help of the mighty Ua Néill clan from Ulster and held that office, this time for good, until his death in 1022 while the tribal wars raged on until the Normans came in 1169.

* The image was found on

** The image was found on 

And more on:

Monday, 21 April 2014

“We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.” - Hernán Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico

21 April 1519, Hernán Cortés landed on the coast of Mexico near the island of San Juan de Ulúa, scuttled his fleet and began the conquest of the Aztec Empire.

“We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.” (Hernán Cortés)

A condensation of the events during Cortés’ arrival and the foundation of Veracruz
by an unknown artist, second half of the 17th century,
with Cortés and his men showing off with their weapons technology
when Moctezuma’s ambassadors arrived.

There was no turning back for Cortés when he left Havana in February 1519. The 34-years old student of the jurisprudence from Extremadura was in the New World for 15 years already, highly valued for his competency, mistrusted for his ambitions, at least went on to become the Governor of Cuba, Don Diego Velázquez’ secretary and alcalde of Santiago, was shotgun-wedded to the daughter of a local dignitary and badly in debt after more or less financing the expedition that was to exploit the riches of the mainland himself. Velázquez finally got cold feet, when Cortesillo, little Cortés, as the Cubans had dubbed him for his so far non-existent achievements he liked to brag about, was about to leave with his 11 ships and 670 men, tried to recall him and was duly ignored.

From the "History of Tlaxcala" (around 1585): 
 Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II inTenochtitlan, November 8, 1519

After sailing around Yucatán, the Spaniards made landfall at the mouth of the Tabasco River, now known as Río Grijalva, four weeks later, trying to gather provisions and were told by the local Chontal Maya frankly to bugger off and Cortés decided to fight it out. He took their village Potonchan by storm after having celebrated the first mass on the Mexican mainland and on the next day, his second-in-command Pedro de Alvarado defeated the Chontal Maya’s leader Taabscoob and his several thousand warriors with 400 men, armoured, well equipped with artillery, small arms and steel weapons, cavalry and war dogs. The Battle of Centla, as the action was called later, gave rise of the idea of the hence unknown horses and their armoured riders were one being and the firearms used became an important factor in the construction of the myth of the invincibility of the conquistadors. At least as important were the 20 slaves given to Cortés as part of a tribute by Taabscoob. One of them was Malinalli, later known as La Malinche or Doña Marina, who became Cortés’ mistress, interpreter and most important counsellor during the conquest of the Aztec Empire looming ahead.

The Halls of Montezuma - Emanuel Leutze's rather romantically dramatic imagination of
“The Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops” from 1848, 
a year after the US Marine Corps distinguished itself at the Battle of Chapultepec in Mexico City.

In April the conquistadors made their next landfall 350 miles to the west known to the indigenous people as Chalchihuecan near the island of San Juan de Ulúa, discovered by Juan de Grijalva, and Bernal Díaz del Castillo on the feast day of St John the Baptist during the previous year, along with the rumours of rich gold deposits and the empire occupying the hinterland – Ulúa derives from the name the locals gave their feared and hated Aztec overlords: coluha. Cortés decided to make a stand here near the mouth of the Antigua River on Good Friday of 1519 and pointed the way for his men. He ordered his ships to be scuttled, thus burning his bridges. From now on it was either conquest of the mainland or an ignominious dead in the middle of nowhere. The next sign followed three days later on April 22nd with the foundation of a city with the fine-sounding name of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, the “rich city of the True Cross”, creating himself General Captain and assigning the place directly to Emperor Charles V and not to the immediate authority of his nominal employer, Governor Velázquez whose worst fears had become true. He’d see nothing of the profits to be gained on the Main. Soon, ambassadors of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II arrived from Tenochtitlan, 250 miles away, and showered the foreigners with gold and jewels, actually to make them pack their things and leave. Cortés famously didn’t. The march on Tenochtitlan with 600 men, 15 of them mounted, 15 cannon and an army of indigenous warriors and carriers began in mid-August 1519.