Posts Tagged ‘medieval’

Bestiary: An Imaginary Menagerie

October 27, 2016

1-Bestiary-8x10Cover-Recto-FINAL.jpg

In an essay entitled ‘On The Shoulders Of Giants’, posted on May 5th of this year, I offered a glimpse of my new alphabetical book project in progress. Today, I am pleased to let you know that it is now complete! It includes alliterative text and illustrations for each of twenty-six letters, a preface and artist’s notes. On Wednesday of this week, my book proof arrived looking exactly as I’d intended, so I turned around and ordered  my first small edition of twelve, scheduled for delivery early next week. I am accepting advance orders now at The Magic Eye Gallery: http://magiceyegallery.com/BookPage.aspx?id=8 

Here are some thoughts on my process and a bit of backstory:

Ideas are mercurial; they may appear to our imaginations in glorious finished form, awaiting physical birth or, more likely, just float by our consciousness, merely hinting at their potential. The idea for Bestiary: An Imaginary Menagerie simmered slowly on one of my back burners for several years as sketches and project notes in one of my journals. It had begun as a casual suggestion for an illustrated alphabet book from my former agent. Projects like this one can be very greedy with one’s time and generally do not pay the bills! So although I had done a few concept drawings at the time, other less speculative projects continued to demand my attention.

armordillounicornsketch

 

Then, late in 2015, following publication of two other titles (An Illumination Of Blessings and Notes From London: Above & Below), I decided to revisit the alphabet book idea. Paging through that old journal, I paused at some drawings of a unicorn and an armadillo which led me to imagine an alphabet book built around the real and imaginary creatures that have been portrayed in illuminated manuscripts for centuries. These colorful hybrids of letterforms and fanciful illustrations first appeared in the 2nd century Greek Physiologus, a compilation of the ancient wisdom and symbolism of animals mentioned in the writings of naturalists such as Aristotle, Herodotus and Pliny The Elder. Later adaptations from the 11th-13th centuries elaborated on these bestiaries and were flavored with Biblical stories, mysticism and religious doctrine. Bestiaries reached their zenith during the medieval era, when artists were commissioned by nobility and wealthy merchants to interpret their naïve descriptions of strange creatures seen on their voyages to exotic lands. Wikipedia offers a fine, detailed history of bestiaries here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestiary

Eventually, my journal sketches became the basis of the finished illustrations below:ArmorOnAnArmadillo-FINAL.jpgunicornwithuniverseunderumbrella-final

Yet, despite our greatly evolved knowledge of zoology since then, why does this timeless literary art form remain popular among the offerings of contemporary publishers? I propose that it does so because we have yet to fully understand the synthesis of our own evolving animal natures with the gifts of speech, writing and acumen.

That said, I’ve always loved to draw animals and have featured them in many original works of art. However, most of my animals are not portrayed realistically; I prefer to imbue them with qualities that reflect our human fortes and foibles. Those bestiary illustrations in which the animals display such attributes were important inspirations for this book. Their titles along with illustrated excerpts were discussed in my previous essay (http://bit.ly/2fjVcpi).

In designing Bestiary: An Imaginary Menagerie, I’ve framed each illustration with an alphabetical alliteration both for organizational purposes and simply because it was great fun to do! My hope is that my efforts will complement the voluminous body of bestiaries throughout history that are tributes to the wonders of creation and to our human imagination…

 

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On The Shoulders of Giants…

May 5, 2016

Imagination, though we all possess it, is usually perceived as the defining quality and exclusive territory of creative individuals, particularly when we marvel at the art, music, literature, science and philosophy it inspires. But the analyst Carl Jung may have been onto something with his theories of our ‘collective unconscious’ which he claimed is the vast, virtual repository of all human thought, endeavor and possibility. In that light, imagination may be the ‘tool’ within all of us for unlocking virtual doors into this realm; enabling us to discover more about who we are and what we are capable of but also to teach us humility as we begin to comprehend all that came before us.

This engraving by the French writer and astronomer Nicholas Flammarion for his 1888 book, L’Atmosphère : Météorologie Populaire seems an apt illustration of the above comments:

A recent TED talk* on the theme of originality validated my instinctive understanding that originality is less about magic than it is about the speed and extent to which we are able to access and use our imaginations productively. With dedicated observation, listening and the use of our senses, aided by technology, we discover that the majority of human accomplishments are the results of ‘sampling’. They are based in sum or in part on the works of others.

Both the 12th century philosopher Bernard of Chartres and 17th century polymath Isaac Newton understood the concept of building on previous discoveries or ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ in order to uncover their own truths. Accordingly, relatively little of what we have produced can be called ‘original’ by the strictest definition of the word.

So even though I always feel slightly uncomfortable creating a piece of art knowing that other versions of it already exist in different forms elsewhere, I usually persist in finishing the piece simply because I wish to contribute to that body of work in my own way. The theme might not be unique, but perhaps my rendering of it might be.

These thoughts are now driving my current drawing project, an alphabetical bestiary. Yes, bestiaries have been around for hundreds of years as have alphabet books; so this idea is far from original. Examples below are from the Aberdeen Bestiary(1200AD), the Tudor Bestiary (1520AD), ‘Adam Naming The Animals‘ from the Northumberland Bestiary(1250-1260AD), Jungle-Jangle by Peter Newell(1909)and from the 1968 Bestiario Moderno by Domenico Gnoli.

Phoenix-AberdeenBestiary.jpg"Jungle Jangle" - Lion - Peter Newell, New York: Harper, 1909.: Detail from 'Rinocerante al XV piano,' pen & ink drawing by Domenico Gnoli, 1968.

Yet the myriad artistic and imaginative combinations of letterforms and animals (both real and imagined)** continue to fascinate us. Could the mystery of our own animal natures combined with our gifts of speech, writing and comprehension be the reason? Maybe it’s a mystery best left unsolved giving us all the more reason to enjoy new additions to the rich body of works that ask the same question but answer it in their own ways.

Here are two pages from my own imaginary menagerie that I hope you will enjoy. To date, I have completed 11 of 26 letters so your comments, questions and suggestions for other letters are welcome!

FarthingaleOnAFerretRGB.jpgGryphonWithAGrimoire.jpg*http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/321797073/what-is-original

 

Week 3: Notes From London: Above & Below

April 22, 2015

Here it is, week 3 of my Notes From London: Above & Below campaign: 17% funded with 17 days to go to meet my $3,000 goal. I’ve been busy publicizing here and wherever else I can think of, social media-wise and on the street, while heading towards the philosophical bent of mind. I love this project; not only has it been several years in the making, but it represents an important period in my life vis á vis a special family member who lived in London for many years and who has always been a great influence on my work; inspiring this book in no small measure. That said, the images I’ve chosen are not necessarily personal but they are intended as memes, as reminders for us to look beyond what is in front of us and ‘see’ or imagine a much deeper picture and story. So, as promised last week, here is another image for your consideration, a detail from ‘Neo-Medieval On The 343’:

I hope you all will continue to help this project gain momentum and spread the word to friends and colleagues worldwide! Every little success gives an artist hope and like fuel for your cars, that keeps us wanting to make things that make you smile!

Sunrise, Sunset, So What?

May 6, 2014

ImageOn average, we spare little daily thought for the sun other than to its perceived influence on the esthetics of the next twenty-four hours. It is, therefore, we are. End of story.

But since the sun’s first appearance in the skies on the fourth day of Creation, according to the Torah (Book of Bereshis/Genesis), this story is not one with an ending; it is punctuated with the myths and folklore of every human culture from the beginning of recorded time and perpetuated across generations in forms apropos to each telling.

These tales comprise a portion of the collective effort to comprehend our origins amidst our mercurial environment, the relentless cycle of the seasons and our place in the cosmos. They are an amalgam of sincere theological speculation, intriguing scientific discovery with some millennial fear-mongering thrown in for spice.

In tribute to this timeless portrait of human curiosity, I’ve chosen to include a rare Jewish blessing for witnessing natural phenomena in my book, An Illumination Of Blessings.

The Birkat Ha-Chamah or Blessing of the Sun is rare because it is recited only once every twenty-eight years, most recently in April of 2009. It is not to be found in standard prayer books; rather, it is distributed to participants at each recitation ceremony. The blessing dates back to Talmudic times (first century AD) when the rabbis, wishing to acknowledge the sun’s importance to life on Earth without inviting idolatry, addressed the star theologically without attributing divinity to it.

According to rabbinical opinion in the Babylonian Talmud, the blessing is to be recited every twenty-eight years on the vernal equinox* to commemorate the sun’s return to its original position (relative to the Earth) on the fourth day of Creation when it is fully visible above the horizon at dawn. They taught: “One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…recites: ‘Blessed is the One Who made the Creation’.” (Tractate Berachot 59b)

My illustration for this blessing is set in medieval Europe when rabbi-scholars like Maimonides (the Rambam) and Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon engaged in lively discussions of Torah and Talmud, codifying their opinions for future generations.

On a grassy hillside against the backdrop of a castle fortress-town, a prayer shawl (tallit) clad man and his son are awaiting the full sunrise as they imagine a vignette of the fourth day of Creation framed within an astrolabe. The hand-shaped (hamsa) device from which the astrolabe is suspended is meant to represent the idea that its five fingers remind us to use our five senses to praise G-d. The hamsa is also referred to as the Hand of Miriam in remembrance of her as sister to Moses and Aaron.** The boy holds a ram’s horn (shofar), which will be sounded when the sun has risen.

This image was suggested by the Birkat Ha-Chamah ceremony of April 8, 1981, led by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York and sounded the shofar amidst a crowd of 300 participants.

I think, perhaps, this is how we might understand our place in the cosmos. As witnesses to the wonders of created life, that is a dance of chaos and order, we are privileged to question it, but are never to know all the answers or the end of the story; at least, not yet.

*************************************************************************

* Why every twenty-eight years? Although the sun rises and sets in the east and west respectively, its position shifts seasonally, moving to the north in summer and to the south in winter. The midpoints of this movement are the equinoxes which mark the autumn and spring seasons. To complete this cycle requires one solar year, the length of which varies by slightly more than a day in our calendar. So the rabbis calculated that when the equinoxes have moved forward exactly thirty-five days, they will occur on the same day and hour as on the first hour of the fourth day of Creation.

** Some of you may wonder why I have not included a woman in this ceremony. This is because the Birkat Ha-Chamah is a time-based mitzvah (commandment) which women are exempt from observing. You can read more about this tradition here: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/woman_commandments.html Nevertheless, the Hand of Miriam attached to the astrolabe represents their spiritual presence.

A Blessing For Dressing: Are You What You Wear?

March 21, 2014

ImageJust as our skin conceals our interior systems, its visible condition is designed to describe their functional state. Likewise, our clothes in their myriad styles and colors both conceal and reveal our psychological states even when our thoughts, speech and actions might proclaim otherwise.

But in a perfect world, the clothes we choose to wear would project not merely the public image we present (depending on our socioeconomic status), but would instead serve as ‘soul garments’ to reflect our inner character from the dynamic facets of our souls. In a superficial sense, they do so, but only if those who see us care to interpret our choices.

I decided to interpret this blessing for getting dressed as a commentary to our ongoing obsession with fashion and the messages we believe it broadcasts for us. Perhaps this blessing, which is one of fifteen blessings recited in Shacharit (the morning service) was designed to help us clarify our understanding of why and how we clothe ourselves. It can also be recited when donning a new article of clothing. In his essay,“Putting On Soul Garments”*, Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter at The Ascent of Safed organization explains why:

“Through its recitation we thank G-d daily for enclothing us with the potential to do mitzvot, i.e. the ability to utilize the garments of the divine soul in a constructive and Jewish way. Each day we weave a finer and more exquisite garment of good thoughts, good words and good deeds, each person according to his capacity. When the soul leaves this world to reunite with its Source, it “wears” a garment woven from all of the positive thought, speech and action a person engaged in while alive. This blessing verbalizes our commitment to transform our mundane actions into a stepping-stone to our Creator by choosing to clothe ourselves in the garments of our Divine soul. Thus, “…who clothes the naked” can also be rendered: “…He that gives purpose to the purposeless,” and by saying this blessing, we thank G-d for investing our lives with meaning and direction.” This was all very interesting, but in order to create proper visuals for this blessing, I needed to know more about how these ideas evolved.

Verse 3:20 in Bereshit/Genesis relates that our primeval ancestors had worn only their ‘birthday suits’ during their time in the Garden of Eden but when this phase in human development ended with their consuming fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, it also brought them realization of two truths; their own mortality and the ability to perceive their bodies and souls as separate entities where they were previously oblivious to such an idea.

Although we are told poetically that Adam and Eve were then provided with a ‘garment of skins’ for protection from the mercurial elements beyond that ideal environment, no specific description of these garments is given until rabbinic commentaries (Midrash) to the Torah were composed in later centuries.

Until beginning my research for this blessing, I had presumed with some distaste that ‘skins’ meant animal skins which would have required the death of another living creature. However, in a midrash called Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (The Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer The Great), I read an intriguing explanation.

It seems that when Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, the serpent who provoked their illicit behavior did not go unpunished. Knowing that Sammael, for that was the serpent’s name, could not die, he was painfully confined to boogie-ing on his belly and was made to shed his skin every seven years. It was from this ‘skin’ that garments were made to replace the fig leaves which Eve had hastily sewn together to wear as a sort of apron.

Though I have not included a literal image of the serpent in my illustration, you might see a shadow of Sammael in the sinuous length of linen that frames it. As I drew this undulating form, I wondered whether his devious actions might have actually liberated Adam and Eve’s intelligence and enabled them to fashion their clothing from the skins of animals and natural plant fibers in their environment? This question led me to include a fig leaf image symbolizing Eve’s ingenious response to her newly mortal predicament.

I’ve dressed the couple shown here in medieval European style garments and shoes derived from both plants and animals; their shoes are made from leather and their clothing from the plant fibers of either flax, hemp, cotton or wool. Note that the sheep and cotton bough are depicted together beneath and separate from the flax and hemp plants. This was done to illustrate the prohibition against combining wool and linen (which is a product of flax or hemp) in a piece of clothing. This commandment is called ‘Shaatnez’ and is one of four ‘chukkim’ in the Torah (laws that seem inscrutable to us yet are to be obeyed without question).*

Though medieval art, architecture and fashion history color many of the illustrations in this book, the fashion aspect is especially relevant in this blessing because it visually epitomizes the tenets of tznius, or modesty in appearance. This custom of dressing encourages us to look past one’s clothes in order to appreciate the character and soul of the one wearing them.

To illustrate this concept, I’ve placed a metaphorical object in the man’s hand. It is a construction of the Ten Sefirot (Divine Energies) in which the Hebrew letter ‘vav’, corresponding to the ‘vav’ in G -d’s name, hosts the other nine letters. It was inspired by my reading of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh’s complex essay,‘The Kabbalah of Nutrition’** in which he explains that while clothing protects us from the elements, it also represents our character traits making it a ‘prescription’ for a healthy body and soul that enables connection to our Creator.

Finally, it is worth noting that in our contemporary scientific attempts to reconcile the significance of clothing with the message it projects, we have developed technologies to create ‘smart clothes’ that measure some of our vital signs to keep us informed of our physical condition. Still, this does not address the spiritual purpose of clothing; it is just a tiny beginning. We have a very long way to go if we are to understand how our clothing can teach us more about who and what we are, technology notwithstanding. Nevertheless, maintaining a certain mindfulness regarding Who provides for us and how we cover our bodies may one day inspire us to understand and perhaps re-experience the perfect world in which we were conceived.

* http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/380607/jewish/Putting-On-Soul-Garments.htm
**The other ‘chukkim’ are explained on pp. 171 and 176 of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).
***http://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/690373/jewish/The-Kabbalah-of-Nutrition.htm

That Was Delicious, May I Have My Check, Please?

October 31, 2013

BirkatHamazonRGB.jpgOutside of those whose regular practice is to recite the blessings after each meal, I suspect that, per the title of this post, more expressions of gratitude for our food go to our servers in restaurants upon receipt of our tab and/or to the chef for a meal well-prepared and thoughtfully presented rather than to the more ethereal Source of Life.

Though I have not always done so, in recent years I’ve decided to try and experience my meals as more than just stuffing my face; whether it is to appreciate the combinations of colors and textures, the unique fragrances of each item on the plate or just acknowledging the complex processes that have made this meal come together as a gift of nourishment for body and soul. This line of thinking and the memories of fine meals past and present led me to choose the Birkat Ha-Mazon or the Blessings After Meals for my next illumination.

Research began with wondering about the origin of this set of blessings and pointed to the reference I found in Devarim or Deuteronomy 8:10: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He gave you”. I learned that the lengthy combinations of blessings and songs of thanks consist of four distinct but related ideas expressed in a lovely poetic stanzas.  They are: the Birkat Hazan (blessing for nourishment and praise for the One Who Sustains the World), the Birkat Ha’aretz (blessing for the Land of Israel), the Binyan Yerushalayim (blessing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem), and the HaTov V’Hameytiv (blessing for the One Who Is Good and the One Who Does Good). Following these blessings, a group of short prayers beginning with the word HaRachaman (The Merciful One) ask the Source of Life for compassion.

Although several versions of the Birkat Ha-Mazon can be found within Judaism (Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Yemenite), I’ve chosen the Ashkenazic form with which I am most familiar. Accordingly, the illustration includes medieval Jews of Central and Eastern European ethnicity, my own cultural background. The pewter dinnerware on the table are empty indicating the conclusion of a meal. Since the figures portrayed are not nobility, their durable pewter might have been more commonly used than finer metals or porcelain. Above this group are four items reflecting the concepts of the blessing’s four verses; a winged crown, a jar of biblical manna, a lion and a model of Jerusalem surmounted by a living date palm. Each item has it’s mundane and mystical purpose and detailed explanations of these will appear in the artist’s commentary of An Illumination Of Blessings.

So I guess the question I have via this blessing is; do you live to eat or do you eat to live? If your choice is the latter, then maybe a little mindfulness will help us realize how to make everything we eat that much tastier… or as the French Ashkenazim might say, ‘Be’ te-avon’ (Bon Appetit)!

A Transparency Of Time

November 4, 2011

This latest drawing from my ‘Notes From The London Underground’ series emerged from a journal sketch of a ‘neo-medieval’ young woman in her ‘urban armor’ traveling on the 343 bus from Southwark to Elephant & Castle in London. Though she is not technically on the ‘Tube’, I’m expanding the series to include observations from other means of transport. I particularly liked seeing the variety of colorful upholstery on both tube and bus. I later learned that the ‘DNA-esque’ moquette pattern called ‘Chevron’  shown here is one of a series designed in 1938 by Enid Marx for the London Passenger Transport Board. As I studied the young woman’s hyperbolic knit beanie, the image of a medieval Flemish portrait flashed to mind and I realized that although London is situated on an isle separated from ‘The Continent’ by the English Channel, its cultural identity is a pastiche of pan-European and global sensibilities unfettered by the constructs of time…