A Daily History of Holes, Dots, Lines, Science, History, Math, the Unintentional Absurd & Nothing |1.6 million words, 7000 images, 3.6 million hits| Press & appearances in The Times, The Paris Review, Le Figaro, MENSA, The Economist, The Guardian, Discovery News, Slate, Le Monde, Sci American Blogs, Le Point, and many other places... 3,000+ total posts
This delightful semi-progression of existence was found in Charles de Bouelles' beautifully titled Que hoc volumine continuentur; Liber de intellectu; Liber de sensu; Liber de Nichilo; Ars oppositorum; Liber de generatione; Liber de sapiente; Liber de duodecim numeris; Epistole complures, and printed in 1510 in Paris. It is, in a way, in a light way, truly a representation of a literal progress of the state of things, perhaps from an Aristotlean point-of-view.
I've no real expertise in this matter whatsoever, and I don't know the de Bouelles book, but I can do a bit of interpretation of the woodcut, which displays different stages of the existence of all manner of things--of all things.
It starts at left with a rock, with an inanimate object ("Minerale", and then "Petra":, with the overall statement of its being, "est"--that it, it "exists". This is the common basis to all eight stages of progress: "est" all the way across, and all the way down.
Next are the plants, the "vegetables"and "arbor", which live ("vivit"); followed at close heal by animals, "equus", which have"sensibilite", or senses. and sense, "sentit", which is a shared ability of four of the eight stages.
The shared height of progress comes next, in man, of "rationale", who is capable of thought ("intelligit"); these factors are shared by the scholar ("studiosis", who comes next, "virtus"). It is next that we start our descent, back to the simple existence of things, to the "est": the sensate, living, existing luxuriant, observing himself in a mirror, determined to see all that was possible to see. "Luxuria" follows, a man eating, enjoying nothing but the pleasure of consumption, simply "living"/Vivit". And then, lastly, to "acedia", to the indolent man, sitting, performing no task, doing nothing: existing, "est". Up and down, back to the rock.
We've all heard of the saying, "playing the money card" but until this morning I've never actually see it, so far as I know. While looking for WWI aerial combat games in the patent records I stumbled across "Capture the Kaiser", a card game created by Charles Hopkins (which was entered into the register at the Patent Office in November 1917 and received the patent less than three weeks after the end of the War)--it was a game of pursuit/capture using 45 cards in which players used the various strengths of nations (airplanes, submarines, battleships) to secure the outcome. It seems pretty much like a standard game of "War" with a few exceptions, one of which was the "finance card". It was one of the strongest cards in the deck, or so it seems, rivaling that of another interesting bit, the "fate card". In any event, it was interesting to see the root of power portrayed so in a card game for kids.
Sometimes when you look hard enough you will see (if not actually "find") what you're looking for; determined to make a discovery, you can sometimes force yourself into believing that what you're seeing is what it was that was needed to be seen .
The microscopical world of astonomical antiquarian prints is an interesting one--and in some ways, modern ways, are on the Robert Hooke/Micrographia magnitudes for the remarkable magnified worlds that their detail reveal--but mostly right now I'm interested in the odd/beautful designs that are hidden in larger scientifc engraved presentations.
[Even in fairly famous scientific images lke the one above--explaining the rainbow--there are all manner of unexpected artistic finds outside of their significant scientific contributions.]
These images from the title of this post, on the other hand, are just simply "there"--all you need is a little magnification and some sharp vision, and the things come to life. When looking hard at these images and seeing the teaming non-representational artforms that swim through so many of them it seems remarkable to me that these things weren't seen as art before Kandinsy finally "discovered" this artform in 1911.
(For example Mr. Marey produced a very remarkable Nude descending-like series of photographs 40 years before Duchamp--but the Marey images were observed scientifically, and I'm unaware of anyone who ever wrote an artistic appreciation of that work before 1900. [Marey left, Duchamp right.] But that is another story.)
For us today with almost 100 years of Kandinsky/Klee/Duchamp/Braque/Malevich under our belts it is relatively easy to see the artfullness of the pieces and bits of these engravings--not so a hundred-plus years ago, and harder yet for 200+.
For example, there are some things that take on an absolutely pre-biotic flavor, like material that we'd come to see a half-century ago, as in these details from an 1850's French lithograph on nebualae:
The ouroboros--and in this particular case, the double, over-and-under ouroboros--is an interesting and ancient symbol. In my experience, the single unit is to be expected, but the double seems uncommon. The symbol ("oura" or tail and "boros", eating, in Greek, one who eats one's tail) stretches back into the dim and dusty past, at least to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and is Plato's first living thing--its is the primordial unity, the rebirth of forever, death/life/birth/rebirth, continuing into infinity, the great world soul...a kind of Western equivalent of the Taoist Yin Yang.
There's much more to be said about this symbol, especially by such people as Erich Neumann and Carl Jung, but I'll resist, mainly because it is just too complicated for me to make an intelligent statement. (I've tried to read the Great Mother as well as The Origins of the History of Consciousness by Neumann, but only made my way around the edges of the first, and picked through the interesting bits of the later. Jung is someone I've never had much luck with.)
The first symbol, and a gorgeous one it is, comes from the Theatrum chemicum (1659-1661, and published in six volumes by Lazarus Zetzner in Strasbourg), and shows the combination of what was supposed to be an alchemical highpoint: the spiritual coming together of sulfur and mercury, elements of what the practioners believed were the basic constituents of all metals and minerals. And of such stuff miracles were understood to be made, except that of course, they weren't--the fact that this stuff never worked to produce something more substantial than mercuric sulfide wasn't due to the theory or practice or thought but to the "fact" that the mercury and sulfur used in the process weren't "pure" enough. That said, the Theatrum was a very important work, the largest collection of alchemical works ever gathered and published together--it was also evidently much appreciated by Isaac Newton, who was said to consult it often and who owned the set in his library.
A more classical appearance of the ouroboros (De Lapide PhilosophicoTriga Chemicum (Prague 1599) compiled by Nicolas Barnaud), depicting a dragon seizing the polarities of its soul, ultimately uniting them:
And in the discussion of the ouroboros and philosophical aspects of infinity it should be mentioned that there is some connection between it and the mathematical symbol for infinity, which seems to arise from (the remarkable and original) John Wallis' De Sectionibus Conicibus, which was published in 1655. Wallis employed the old Roman symbol for 1,000 to use for the mathematical infinity, which of course is the ouroboros on its side. (Wallis it should be noticed was also among the earliest people to put into print the symbol for pi, as well.)
This lovely, and short, pamphlet was published by Baltazar Moncornet in Amsterdam in 1635 as Livre de fleurs et de feuilles pour servir a l'art...Dessins de fleur pour orfeverie, with designs by Francois Lefebvre. Slender and tall, there was an engraved title followed by five plates for the entire production. It is a very fine work, hard in detail, and worthy of close inspection.
I was getting ready with what was supposed to be the real post for today when I stumbled upon this woodcut of the Roman god Saturnus. What makes this image so terrifically compelling is how benign it is—in its weird, mechanical, disinterested observational manner the artist conveys almost nothing about the act that we witness as the god plots his way across the sky in its celestial chariot. Saturn (equated with the Greek Kronos, and the Titan father of Zeus, and also the name of the gaseous oblate six planet) commits acts of horror, and becomes, again and again, perhaps the greatest coward of the Roman pantheon of questionable deities.
It begins with Saturn being told his future: that at some point in his life his son or sons will supplant him, catch him, replace him and kill him. And the best thing that Saturn can think to do is to methodically eat his children, and he does manage to consume all but one—Zeus—who then fulfills the prophecy; but then again, who wouldn’t? There is really very little like this in mythology—and, really, why should there be?
Our artist—or engraver—is George Pencz (1500-1550), alive and dead very neatly at the century and half-century mark, and his work ("The Life of the Children of the Planet Saturn") is illustrated in Folge der Planeten . The image of Saturn racing along with his son’s head in his mouth looks naive compared top the rest of the illustration, which is a very lively, if quiet, depiction of the industry that his dead sons would have applied themselves to if they hadn’t been consumed by their father. The illustration of Saturn is very disturbing to me, particularly when you notice the son-in-waiting, who is watching his father eat his brother, and in an incredibly pathetic and heart-breaking way is trying to protect himself by holding his head. I think it is so very moving because it is a perfectly logical (from a child’s point of view) reaction to an unimaginable terror, and perhaps this is how Pencz can best deal with the vile god.
Images of Saturn really are legion, but there are a host-and-a-half that are pretty upsetting, like the one above, and the one coming, below. I think that the one that is the test against which all others are measured is by Francisco Goya, who during his “black period” painted the truly terrifying image of Saturn devouring his child right on the wall of his house in 1824 (or thereabouts). It really is bad stuff. The scene as painted by Peter Paul Rubens isn't much better.
Admittedly, J.I.I Grandville (1803-1847) didn't conceive of this series of bridges as a plausible means of interplanetary travel and is in all probability an allegorical creation, but the image does--in an odd way--allow a dialogue on the idea of moving from planet to planet, which was still pretty solitary thinking in the mid-19th century. Although this didn't have a direct effect on the perception of man's place in the solar system, it did have a great and direct impact upon a vast number of illustrators and cartoonists who followed in his considerable wake.
This image comes from Grandville's Un Autre Monde, published in 1844.
In addition to an interplanetary bridge that there is another singular creation here in Grandville's cosmos--a balcony constructed of the rings of Saturn (if indeed this was supposed to be Saturn--it is as advantageous as not to think of it in this way) and if we think of a balcony being a place to watch and observe, then we are brought instantly to W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, which is a textural masterpiece, and mostly I guess a novel about everything that Sebald observed in his walk through Suffolk. (Another Saturn-related work of fiction is Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut, a very mature and insightful 1959 novel which really has nothing to do with anything here; I just needed to throw that in, what with him being a master storyteller, crank and human-caricaturist-observer and all…) And so by 1844 it comes to pass that one French caricaturist/imaginist comes to draw an extraordinary and impossible land/space bridge between the planets only 234 years after Galileo first glimpsed Saturn's "handles"--give the optics of his telescope Galileo didn't see the rings of Saturn as such, seeing rather two "extra bodies" on either side of the planet It would take another 65 years and accumulations of observations by some of the greatest names in the history of astronomy (Galileo, Casini, Hevelius, Huygens) to show that the disk (singular) on Saturn was actually a series of rings. (I should add that the first photograph of Saturn's rings is not made until 1883.
Which somehow brings me to the troubled world of the "Saturn Gnosis", the Fraterniti Saturni. Actually the only place I'm getting to here is a picture (above), which I tried to understand before I realized what it was, and how much of an expanding hocus-pocus (otherwise defined as "woo woo" in the words of James Randi) rabbit hole of diminishing returns it leads to, a dizzying history of competing complexities and nonsense. But the image (found in a book edited by Eugen Grosche, (Offizielles Publikations-Organ der deutschen Gross-Loge Fraternitas Saturni Orient Berlin, 1929), comes from a psycho-sexual-astrological-magical group (one of a number of such associations in Germany and particularly Berlin in the 1920's), and seems no less a part of reality as does Grandville's Saturn. Sameness ensues when you try to approximate the volume of limitless emptiness, or belief.
I started out in this post to write about the scholar pictured in Andrew Borde's book, The Breuiary of Healthe, for all maner of syckenesses and diseaes, Expressynge the obscure terms of Greke, Araby, Latyn, and Barbary, in Engluish concernying Phisicke and Chierurgerie...., which was printed in London in 1556. Underneath this rather long title is perhaps the earliest "modern" work on hygiene--or at least (in a real test of qualifications) it was the first book written by a medical man on hygiene that was originally written and published in English. In its way it is a wonderful book, being a compendium, really, of 384 short chapters on the this-and-that of medicine, all alphabetically arranged, which made it a simpler book to compose than a full treatise on the subject arranged in a medically-logical way. But what I liked in it was the contrasting image of the scholar, which to me is the very picture of ennui, laid side-by-side with the chief element by which this book is probably best remembered, which is "Myrth is one of the chiefest thygnes in physicke" (or "humor is the best medicine"). Borde's scholar may not be taking his own medicine, here.
In looking for the text for this fine book I came across something else, Borde's Aristotelian celestial spheres in his The First Book of the Introduction of Knowledge, printed in 1542, the year before the publication of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus. It is a magnificent woodcut, and tells the story of a vision of mankind that would soon come to vast change.
The image shows us the geocentric universe, the creation, and eleven-sphere unit that follows the Earth at center and the four subluminaries (earth wind air fire), followed by the orbit of the Moon and Mercury and Venus, after which comes the Sun, followed by the rest of the planets. These spheres are followed by the fixed stars/the starry firmament), and ultimately by the Primum Mobile, divided into the crystalline heaven, the first mover, and the Empyrean. Its a beautiful image.
The following is in a sense a cross-section of the Borde image, which shows pretty much the same information (with the Sun being in the fourth sphere). This is manuscript is more than a hundred years earlier than the Borde, and accurately represents the elements of cosmology of the time.
An even earlier version of this more-or-less static image, the perfect image of the perfect creation in which all of the stars in the visible sky were always there, in some perfect number, in the configurations for all time. (This idea of course would be one of the greatest disfigurers of ancient thought that the telescope of Galileo would provide.)
Source: Spheres Surrounded by Angels, Brevari d'amour, late 14th c
Robert Fludd, a visionary of a different sort, as his celestial sphere will show:
Fludd’s (1574-1637) features a complicated astrological existence well beyond the point of Copernicus. In addition to everything else, real and imagined, Rosicrucianism and astrology and puffy-birds, Fludd, who was an English physician, delved deeply into the real stuff of the world in this book in addition to all of the other make-believe--optics, the musical intervals, perspective drawing, hydraulic engineering, construction of lifting machines, military engineering and many other interesting, physical science topics. But this drawing, right there on the title page, reveals Fludd’s real interests and shows what governs what he does. Everything else, the math and and the physics, services this need. Of course the image is beautiful, which is why it is here, but it is also a deeply personal, exploitative, cover-all for the things that Fludd *wanted* to find.
The depiction of the anthropomorphic Sun featured with a broad toothy smile seems a commonplace fixture in modern times--at least in the very popular media--but it seems to me that the Sun was an impressively dour character in the most misty and moldy past. Its a much harder issue for me to locate a happy Sun than a phlegmatic one, as we can in the coming examples. Here, for instance, the Sun is actually disappointed, and dark:
[Georgette de Montenay/Anna Roemer Visscher, Cent emblemes chrestiens (c. 1615)]
The Sun (representative in this case of the Christian god) disavows the heavily robbed false philosopher, finding nothing but fault in the erroneous thinking and pronouncements, so much so in fact that it distances itself from the phonylogian by turning itself black and devoid of light, absenting the light that was supposed to be shone via the heretic's teaching.
Feigning to be a philosopher with your long cloak You bring forward all false theories about the pure Sun. First learn to recognize what is the true light. The balmy day does not shine in obscure night
Conversely, the sun would also shine to dispel the false teaching of other philosophers, as so, though this time without any face at all:
[Source: Pieter Huygen, Beginselen van Gods Koninkrijk (1689)]
But mostly it seems the Sun appears to those who came before with a mostly blank expression:
Where was the smilign Sun hundreds of years ago? Anthropomorphic images of the Sun have appeared in books in the West for several hundred years, and in almost every case where the Sun has a face, it is usually expressionless, its mouth drawn into a mid-Western farmer/Abe Lincoln horizontal, a tightly drawn nothing. Two thin lips, firmly repulsing all emotion. The face of the Sun was insurmountable, a tabula rasa, showing perhaps that there was nothing there at all inhabiting this iconographic image of The Creator to give the poor observer a glimpse into the depths of the future.
This observation seems to stand for Sun Gods and Goddesses as well, even the ones who are being tugged or pulled or charioted a cross the vaults of the heavens—the Nordic Sól, Greek Helios , Roman Sol Invictus, Vedic Surya and of course Elijah ascending to Heaven in a Chariot of Fire, all seem pretty intractable. But in general images that we see of Sun deities like Apollo, Greece and Rome; Freyr, Norse; Garuda, Hindu; Huitzilopochtli (Uitzilopochtli), Aztec; Inti, Inca; Liza,West African; Lugh, Celtic and Re (Ra) and Isis, and on and on, show a small, set pair of lips, if they have a mouth at all, and this going back beyond the Sumerians (Shamash).
When the Sun really loses its human personae in the 17th century (the scientific sun and stars beginning much earlier, as in for example Allessandro Piccolomini's Della Sfera del Mondo, 1552, with simple star maps unadorned by icons and written in the vernacular), it is replaced with starry images which seem to somehow have more emotional authority than the sun images with faces. Perhaps the sun was meant to have this Delphic, blank-mirroring quality, given its importance as a giver (and taker) of things,
and that it was not within human capacity to understand it as an emotive entity, especially during bad times. But in those times of Good and Bad it wasn’t necessary to see a frown or a smile on an image of the Sun, I guess because of the complaints of redundancy.
No matter, though, as the modern astronomical text took care of the Sun and its missing buckets of smiles in due course—until more modern times, when the Sun is made to have a matching disposition, a result of kinder modern artists.
This Sun seems to rule with an ennui Daniel de la Feuille, Devises et emblemes (1691); and then again, in the following superbly engraved work by Jacob Cats, Sinne- en minnebeelden (1627):
The Sun here seems to have a knowledge-worn expression, a sense of having-seen-it-all, in this beautiful work by Georgette de Montenay/Anna Roemer Visscher, in Cent emblemes chrestiens (c. 1615)
And again from the Montenay we see a smirking Sun (definitely not a smiling one) judging the efforts of humans once again, and finding them coming up far to short:
I guess you could make a case for an "amused" Sun in the Montenay, though in a third-person sort of Royal way of being removedly amused. Here--in a rare and very important work in the history of alchemy--we see a rising Sun in an amused state, welcoming the book's author, on his alchemical pilgrimage.
In another illustration from this book (by Salomon Trismosin, Auretum Velius oder Guldin Schatz und Kunsthkammer, printed by Georg Straub at Lake Constance in 1598/9, and also known as "Splendor Solis") we find the following expected facial posture:
And so on and on this continues, this presentation of the Sun as both removed and judging, until--in some cases--the business of representing the Sun anthropomorphically disappears altogether, even in allegorical representation, like so:
The Man in the Moon will just have to wait his turn, though I can't resist the following couple of images, the first of which shows the Moon in a phase of nothingness and a nil expression:
[Source: Daniel de la Feuille, Devises et emblemes (1691)]
And then this classic image from an iconic and early science fiction film:
And from the 1905 motion picture version of Jules Vernes From the Earth to the Moon called A Trip to the Moon--upon the approach, the Moon's surface was blank, but quickly developed a face, which was sort of smiling--until struck in the eye by the Verne capsule.
Offhand, though, my memory doesn't offer too many smiling-Moon expressions.
See the other Extra-Earth posts:Mondo Bizarro, Science Afflictions and the Dubious Mind—Bad Science, Part 1. NYC in Space (?!) here and Extra-Earth Humano-Alien Souls From Outer Space Repopulate Earth-Hell!!(??)here.
Peter Brueghel (the elder, born ca. 1525 and dying in 1569), was the Dutch semi-discoverer and king of "normality" of Renaissance art--and by "normality" I mean that he depicted non-royal things that were generally off the palette for almost everyone else, finding subjects in peasants and small life (hunting, meals, working at agriculture, festivals, dances, and so on). Brueghel was also perhaps the first painter to depict a landscape for the sake of its own beauty, without being a backdrop for a religious study or building or historical scene. He was extraordinarily prolific in his skimpy 45 years, fully populating his scenes with suites of busy and evolving life.
Browsing through some of his work, I came across the print called "Temerpance", which in general I think was supposed to warn us against excessive pleasure, but which really just confused me a little.
(TEMPERANTIA; and then, VIDENDVM, VT NEC VOLVPTATI DEDITI PRODIGI ET SVXVRIOSI//APPAREAMVS, NEC AVARA TENACITATI SORDIDI AVT OBSCVRI EXISTAMVS. "We must look to it that, in the devotion to sensual pleasures, we do not become wasteful and luxuriant, but also that we do not, because of miserly greed, live in filth and ignorance".)
To me, it looks like people here are pretty industrious, mostly engaged in scientific or musical pursuits: lots of books, musical instruments, people writing and reading. But I guess that these were sensual pleasures, pleasures of the mind and heart, and not a pleasure devolved from the godhead. Perhaps the complete opposite is true: the print showing the triumph of the pursuit of the mind over sensual graft, lifting mankind above the filth and ignorance of the body. Sheesh.
But the real grit of my interest is the action lurking in the background, the man, the astronomer, making measurements in the sky, triangulating the Moon and the Sun (perhaps). What on earth is he standing on? He does seem to be standing on earth in the background of the earth on which thee people in the foreground are standing--which means, with a stretch, we have the fourth entry in this blog's short "Extra Earths" category.
The more I think about it, and the more closely I look at the print, this confusion must be my own--this must be Brueghel's way of showing the possible worlds that exist outside the sensual and self indulgent. He shows children (and adults) learning their ABC's at the feet of teh schoolmaster at bottom right, a theatre scene at upper left, a large musical ensemble (complete with choir). An industrious man measures his fields, while builders to his right measure their progress and trueness on a column; at bottom right we see an "accountant" of the times working his tables and figures, while another to his right works on a math problem, clutching his pot of ink. The figure in the middle (with "temperance" written in the hem of his garment), reminds us of our mortality, with a sword in one hand and a clock on his head. All in all, it is a delightful scene of industry and invention--and it has an extra earth.
Of course the extra-earth is allegorical, but, still, it is an unusal thing to see.
The wonderful Punch, or the London Chiarivari strikes again for the year 1879. The quick-browse is seldom complete, as I've witnessed again and again; 1879 revealed several fantastic images that were posed to this blog last week (here, for the Technology Museum of the Future and also here for Thomas Edison's Anti-Gravity Underwear and Kite Babies), and as it turns out just a few pages away, there existed a larger, two-page illustration that was again on the triumph of science, and which I missed completely, twice.
The message in this cartoon is the glory of "science", which was flying very high indeed in the newly-electrified times of 1879. Dominating the image is Mr. Punch himself, holding the electrical sun in one hand, illuminating everything. To his right, Mars and Heracles stand before an enormous cannon, with different reactions; Bacchus sits astride a barrel of coffee of all things with Pan enjoying a short cup of Joe, while in the lower left corner Hades himself is making a photograph of Eros (?), an hourglass slung across his back, finally coming to grips with capturing change. In the right corner at bottom is a young man who is intent perhaps on reporting on the situation via a handy public telephone--such things didn't yet exist in 1879, the telephone being just three years old, but the artist thought enough of its future power to add it into this scene of the triumph of science and technology over the panoply of gods and demigods.
On the right ide of the image the gods make no further advance against science and technology. Ares-as-workingman is puzzled by the giant Nasmyth hammer, with the Cyclops in the background a little more concerned, disbelieving what their eye told them. Poseidon is shuttled away in the lower left, accompanied by what looks to be a weeping mermaid., hustled to the exit by a torpedo, a diver in a deep sea suit, and what I think is a special life-preserving inflatable suit. In the middle of the image we see two women dressed in legal and academic garb, looking determined before a finicky Hermes; and above them, lording over it all, is a very dissatisfied Zeus, and a headache-y Hera.
Since the image is entitled "Prometheus Unbound, or Science in Olympus", I guess that Zeus must be reacting to electricity as the unbound Prometheus, a modern version of a kind power given to humankind via electricity. It is this new Prometheus that is the undoing of the god's retreat.
Overall, this is a very plain Victorian view in the trust of science and technology to lead in all things, even the very basis of much of European mythology. [I hope that I haven't abused the mythology too much.]
This image of the near-future Statue of Liberty ("Liberty Enlightening the World") appeared in the German version of Puck magazine in 1888--since the statue was officially dedicated on 28 October 1886 it didn't take the cartoonists and social satirists very long at all to get around to using Lady Liberty/Libertas as a backdrop for their message. And the message here was the creeping advertising age, which was just the shroud of an advancing consumerist society, because there wouldn't be that many ads if there wasn't so much material fighting for so many consumers. Advertising was beginning to creeping in everywhere--and here the cartoonist foresaw a near-future in which the Statue of Liberty was a pure advertising vehicle, and as it turns out, most of the stuff advertised there was junk.
Here's another version in glorious black and white
Another intriguing image of the Statue of Liberty of the future appears below, and described in an earlier post on this blog, here. Although not being used for advertising, she has become just another part of the landscape, swallowed up by the advancing transportation age.
And although it looks as though Lady Liberty is being packed away as part of a mothball fleet of iconic Americana, this image shows her in France, being constructed (for deconstruction), in 1884.
In the history of mountains seldom have they raised themselves so magnificently as that seen in Jacopo da Valenza's St. Jerome in the Wilderness. Painted in about 1509, da Valenza (who flourished from 1478-1509) depicts the 4th century Saint--a Doctor of the Catholic Church, proponent of asceticism, scholar, philosopher, historian and translator of the Bible--sitting calmly and reading a book balanced on the top of a rock pile, sitting in a deep state, with a metaphorical depiction of time and biography looming impossibly and invisibly behind him in the form of a mountain.
I believe that the scene that wind their way around the mountains are those from St. Jerome's life, displayed for all but not to him, shown as a chronological memory in simultaneous display.
The imagery of the mountain displays as much history and imagination as required by the viewer. It has a distinct Tower of Babel quality to it, though here the mountain very decidedly has no upper limit, no summit, the mountain disappearing into the north end of the painting, and actually seems to be getting larger and more dense as it ascends.
Jerome is serene, larger matters on his mind than a simple history of one life.
The saint is frequently shown in very stark surroundings, and occasionally appears in more formal and lush biblio-related scenes--as the man did, after all, serve his Pope in very advanced capacities in Rome for a number of years. But this I think is how we picture Jerome in a generalized way--except for the extraordinary mountain.
Jean-Jacques Scheuchzer's Physique Sacree (published 1732-1737) is an enormous, plumply illustrated thing, an extraordinarily diverse work on the Old Testament and the antique sacred and its relationship to the panoply of natural philosophy. Its 759 illustrations are usually given overly-encrusted decorated borders by a diverse and at times bizarre selection of themes from biology, geology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and whatever else seemed to work. It is a production of the High Baroque and high imagination, working within the very definite confines of ecclesiastical squareness and scientific roundness--and somehow the pegs all seem to fit, for Scheuchzer.
The image that I latched onto [and which is available at 200% if you click through it] illustrates Genesis I 26, 27:
"26: And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."
Indeed. We can see the pure holly light (appreciably wide as it gets to its subject than when it started, where it is also degraded) extending diagonally across the image to a surprised/fearful Adam, who is popped into a landscape of the newly-created. But it is the border illustration that is most extraordinary to me--it is an 11-segment depiction of the birth process, told almost exclusively in baby skeletons. The story begins at top-right corner, with perhaps a hint of conception, and then through developmental stages II (embryonic) and then III/IV (taking us through the third month) and then V through VII (showing perhaps through the seventh month or so), displayed in a top- and bottom-middle display, and not in order. I really don't know enough of developmental anatomy to say what is depicted in images VIII through XI, except to note that--of course--they are all skeletons, and the last is weeping.
Spermatozoa seem to be missing in images I and II, or at least Scheuchzer didn't make an attempt to show them at work, even though he must've been aware of their existence, discovered fifty years earlier (in 1677) by Leeuwenhoeck. But this discovery certainly didn't get in the way of maintaining the theory and belief in the homonuclus--the tiny, preformed person carried completely within the sperm and implanted in the woman who served basically as an oven, a receptacle. Scheuzcher believed on the other hand that the homonuclus was located in the ovaries--still part of the preformationist camp, but getting closer to elevating the importance of woman in embryological development.
[All that said I don't know the reason for the weeping skeleton; or, for that matter, what the things are that the two skeletons at upper left are holding.]
The homunuclus, famously illustrated in Nicolas Hartsoeker's Essay de Dioptrique in 1694:
I remember that the floor of my grandmother's beauty salon (in Great Barrington, Massachusetts) was a dark (gray on black?) rolled linoleum affair, not much different from the floors that you'd see (if you could see them) in black and white movies from the 1930's. Grandma's floors were probably that old--my memory is from the early 1960's and the salon was far older than that--and so they looked like you'd expect an old, shiny, kept floor to look. Plus you'd never really see floors in those older films, anyway, so it was difficult to see even if there was a design, let alone imaging a color.
That's why it is so surprising to see magnificently-colored floors in catalogs such as Armstrong Cork Company's Better Floor for Better Business (1936) and Home Decorator's Idea Book (1931). (Both of these booklets are available for purchase from our blog bookstore.) Color wasn't invented after World War II--it just seems that way. Color photographs, color home films and color motion pictures really didn't get a popular start until then, so it might be natural to assume that the world was a bit more bland in shades of gray before then.
All the same, these floors are so terrifically colorful that they look to me to be like a tiny design writ large--like a design for nightclub's matchbook cover done on a 500 square foot canvas.
[This is a kindergarten room, by the way.]
See what I mean? These floors are beautiful in a way that escapes beauty. I don't particularly like them nor would I want to live on them, but they do have a certain inescapable loveliness to them that is just not beautiful. Perhaps it is the odd juxtaposition of unexpected color. This is seen in sharper detail (left) in a post that a made ("There Was a Rubber Lady in a Rubber Room...) earlier in this blog. Or maybe it is the unexpected combination of colors, or the unexpectedness of the colors themselves, that is the driver to this lusciousness.
And then there are the swastikas.
Now the swastika is a very, very old symbol, thousands of years old, transcontinental, transoceanic, a transcendental image that was completely and forever corrupted by the National Socialist Party, a shameful symbol, a symbol turned into a hatefuil and horrible thing in just 20 years or so, overtaking two millenia of use. And here we are, in the early- and mid-1930's, during the time of the Nazis and Hitler and their free use of the swastika, here we are with this Armstrong firm from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, still using the swastika in design elements for their floors.
(Here's one page of floor design elements from the Armstrong catalog at left; and the detail for design number three at right.)
Armstrong was also in the heart of some country within the United States (Lancaster) that was very rich in symbolist design, but I think that this has nothing to do with anything. I'm also not making th case for their being fascist leanings at Armstrong--I'm simply pointing out that even as late as 1938 (when another edition of this work appeared again with swastika design) that the image was still acceptable enough to have as part of a part of a floor. It strikes me as deeply odd.
Here's another example from the 1936 catalog (and just to be perfectly clear I'm not highlighting the swastika part--it is offset in different colors in the originals):
I'm not seeing Nazis in my porridge, though Madison Sqaure Garden was still getting filled up by American Nazis for their German Bund meeting in 1936--I'm just pointing out that it seems surpising that the symbol was still being used in popular design as late as it was.