Monday, October 28, 2019

Week Four of #INKtober 2019

The pages of medieval manuscripts abound in birds so I had no trouble finding a different one to sketch each day last week. You could say this fourth week of #INKtober was for the birds! I started with the lark because of its perching on that teal branch. It was one of several scattered in the margins, all in different poses, all on a teal branch. They have been calling to me since day one. Their role in medieval times was dual, both as ingredient in pate and as a domesticated song bird. It was associated with several natural cycles, including the daily cycle because it sang at sunrise: "The lark takes its name from praise of the day. It is never mistaken about the dawn, even when this arrives early. It makes regular circles high in the air, it varies its agreeable song with a suave diversity. It is said that it marks each hour of the day with joyous trills. By devoting itself completely to songs of praise, it earns its name, which derives from Laudo." That triangular headcrest helps identify it from similar bird depictions in illuminations. There are examples in 13th century religious orders sermons using the lark to evoke those devoted to a life of religious contemplation: "This bird reproaches idlers for their lethargy and represents the zeal of those given to contemplation. It never feeds on impure things, just as decent men avoid indecent things." Apparently, nothing bad to say about a lark.

The stork was seen as a "model of filial and parental love," and was much discussed by medieval interpreters of the natural world. The way they watch over their nest, never leaving it unattended, was presented as a figure for spiritual vigilance to Christians who might become lax in their prayers. Its devotion to its young was likened to "the master's love for his disciples." There are examples of less favorable characteristics, of course, as in the fable of the stork and the fox, where the stork takes advantage of the fox because of its long beak, or stories of them being "merciless judges of members of their own kind that are suspected of adultery." Sigh . . .

I think most of us are familiar with the image of the phoenix rising from flames in a show of renewal. But I don't think I've ever seen one depicted before the transformation, as it endures those painful flames. That's what drew me to this illumination of The Phoenix on Its Pyre. By the time its legend had been passed down and elaborated upon, those of the Middle Ages using it in manuscripts showed it as having characteristics of a large raptor, although it may be inspired by a real bird, the purple heron that had golden plumage on its back and neck, which may have stimulated observers' imaginations contributing to the legend. The myth tells of a creature that is immortal, who at the end of its 500 year lifespan "collects fragrant substances from the four corner of the earth in order to build a funeral pyre in Heliopolis, the city of the sun. When the pyre is completed, the phoenix alights upon it and stokes the flames with its wings. As the bird is consumed, its ashes produce a little worm that metamorphoses into another bird as it grows, an exact duplicate of the original creature. Hence the mythical bird became a symbol of immortality, or at least of extreme longevity." It is easy to see how Christianity could conscript this story to represent the resurrection of Christ and thus the use of the phoenix in illuminations and Christian art in general is widespread.

The hoopoe is a bird I hadn't heard of but was attracted to because of that big woodpecker-like crest. Apparently that is one of its features, along with its pinkish beige, black and white plumage, that attracts females and can be used to frighten off an enemy when fanned out (see some great photos of this here on Wikipedia). By virtue of how often it shows up adorning margins of late Middle Ages manuscripts, it appealed to medieval tastes, even though there wasn't much else to sing its praises about. Written sources are divided on whether it was a good or bad example, some seeing it as unclean and repellent due to its habits concerning excrement and thus a negative symbol in the writings of moralists (likened to sinners who are defiled by sin and who derive great pleasure from their filth), others seeing it as a symbol of human compassion for others because of its tendency to frequent cemeteries and the belief that it was mourning the dead. Another tradition dating back to the Greek Physiologus associates the hoopoe with a model of filial affection and moralizing that its practice of taking care of the aging hoopee by its young birds should be an example "to those perverse offspring who turn their aged parents out of doors and refuse to care for them in their old age, although the parents took care of them when they were children." 

Bestiaries describe the coot as the most placid of birds, nesting in one spot all its life and never using its wings. In general, coots today have weak wings but that doesn't keep them from flying, and strong legs which makes them good runners on land. No telling where the bestiaries came up with this description. But it did make the coot prime subject matter to symbolize good Christians who remain faithful to the church all their life, unlike heretics who randomly follow their whims. Others knew that they sometimes built their nests on rocks, which could then be linked to the parable of the wise and foolish builders with the rocks symbolizing Christ, a firm foundation for one's faith. There are plenty of coots swimming the waters around the area where I live, and perhaps the worst story I've heard about them and their placid nature (or is it more stupidity?) is that in winter they often freeze in place overnight as they rest on the water. Unable to move, they become easy prey for eagles who swoop down and snatch them up.

According to Isidore of Seville, ercinee birds were named after the big primal forest in Germany, and bestiaries explained that in this forest they were "distinguished by their luminous wings: travelers can use their feathers to plot their path so as not to get lost on the way back in the night, or can send out the bird as a pathfinder . . ." J. Andre identified this bird with the Bohemian waxwing that spent its winters in central Europe. Its beige and salmon pink plumage is tipped in what looks like dots of red wax which may be why medieval observers thought these birds luminous. The one I've drawn here is from the only bestiary that contains an illustration of an ercinee that comes close to looking like the Bohemian waxwing.

The swan was popular in medieval manuscripts, not only for its ornamental qualities but also for its symbolism going back to antiquity. The best known legend tells of the song it sings as it dies, thought to be the most beautiful in the world and leading to the expression "swan song" for the final masterpiece of a dying artist. No matter that swans do not actually sing in spite of this and other legends of swans singing. But leave it to our religious friends to find something negative about the beautiful and admired swan. Its "pride of swimming . . . is compared to the haughty air of one who pursues sin until the very end . . . just as the swan is stripped of its plumage and set to roast on a spit, the sinner will end up stripped of his glory to burn in the flames of hell." Another reference citing the white feathers covering a black skin sees the swan as "the symbol of impious hypocrites who feign chastity while indulging in a life of debauchery." Poor swan.

My swan has a very unswanlike beak and a curvy long neck that's a bit out of control, but a swan it is. It is one of a group of swans in an illustration of a story from Virgil's Aeneid: "To this Juturna [the nymph, beloved of Zeus] added an impressive deed: from the height of the heavens she sent a sign, and never was there an omen more likely to dismay and crush the spirits of the Romans. Zeus' eagle, flying through the heavens' crimson light, was chasing a noisy flock, a throng of river birds, when, plunging suddenly into the water, the cruel raptor seized in his clenched claws the most splendid swan. The Romans held their breath as all the birds, with a cry, took flight - an astonishing spectacle, darkening the sky with their wings, forming a cloud, they forced their enemy into the air; finally , overwhelmed by the force of their attack, the eagle let fall back into the river the prey that it gripped in its claws and took flight, disappearing into the clouds."

I can't believe October has 5 weeks, so I have one more week, albeit only a 5 day one, to go. Well, I did mark more than 31 potential subjects and I know just the ones I want to draw as Inktober comes to a close.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Something Wrong

Birch out my back door - not as bright as it usually is

I'm blaming it on that unseasonably early below freezing cold-snap we had at the end of September, followed by another one a week or so later. Most of the trees had not started to turn as the early snow fell, and it seemed to shock them into not quite knowing what to do. As they finally have turned, the colors have been dull, pale russets rather then bright orange-reds, muted golds rather than clear yellows.  Granted, these pictures were taking over the weekend when it was cold, damp and overcast, but even on a sunny day, there's not much brightness to the leaves.

Looking along the backyards from my place, the only bright looking thing is that landscape bush next to the building down from me. Compare this to what things looked like last year in this post (those grasses show absolutely no color this year). And there's something not quite right about that tamarack showing in the upper right.

Tamaracks (also known as larches) have needles that turn yellow and drop off in the fall, unlike other conifers. But this year something else is happening. There's a green hugging the branches while the rest of the needles are yellow. I'm not sure I've ever witnessed this before.

And it's not just the tamaracks. These are off a maple tree out front. I noticed it on Monday, how the leaves retained some green along the veins, and I didn't remember this maple turning yellow.

I searched around the tree and found a few leaves showing some of the red I remembered. Something is definitely wrong here.

A bookbinder that I follow recently showed a "botanical" book she had bound using paper she had eco dyed. I remembered watching her tutorial of eco printing paper a while back and thinking it wasn't something I was interested in. But now I was feeling differently about it and looked up the tutorial to refresh my memory. Her method is very simple and relatively quick (as opposed to the process involved in eco printing fabric) and I realized I had everything I needed on hand. With those odd leaves on my mind, I decided this might be the perfect time for me to try this. By yesterday, the sun had come out and the winds too and that maple tree was mostly bare (the birch out back too). I gathered the maple leaves from the ground, along with some red ones off a chokecherry tree and some cottonwood leaves further along on my walk, followed the directions and was stunned at the beautiful results.

Chokecherry leaves on the bottom, top a bleed through

Not everyone's a winner, and some sides look better than others, as you get some bleed through from the layer underneath. I love the soft impressions on the top half of this page but not so much the bottom half. Arrangement is important, and some leaves I arranged better than others. 

Maple leaf and pink geranium flowerettes

I used 7 x 10 inch heavy watercolor paper so these can't really be pages in a book, but they could be soft covers. I might even try some stitching on some of them. Or collaging - teabags anyone?

I think this one is my favorite. I was unsure about overlapping leaves so only tried it on this one. I can see that it works really well. I was warned that results might be unpredictable, that some flowers or leaves might not transfer any color at all or a color you might not expect. All those yellow cottonwood leaves I collected? They turned brown and left dark brown images while the yellow and green maples stayed lighter with hints of that yellow. And while not distinct, the few pink geranium flowerettes that I salvaged off the plant on my deck (the cold weather hasn't been kind to it either) did transfer a somewhat mauve. I'm keen to try this again with a less heavy paper.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Week Three of #INKtober 2019

It's getting more difficult to squeeze in a daily drawing. I admit in spite of the consecutive dates on this week's drawings, there were a couple of days when I doubled up. As you can imagine, the two on this page sucked up a lot of time, and that dragon still had about half-way to go by the time I had to stop on that day. No matter, I am very pleased with both of these. The Basilisk is another from the serpent family, in fact, presented as the king of serpents. It supposedly could kill with a single glance "due to its mythical nature, born of the confluence of two traditionally opposed worlds, the earth and the heavens." My version has the front end of a chicken and the tail of a reptile which is seen as reconciling opposites of birds and reptile into "an abomination possessed of extraordinary power." Not surprising that biblical references would be quite negative, even to the extent of using it to symbolize the anti-Christ. Mine rather looks on a mission. You can read more about the mythical basilisk at Wikipedia. In real life, the common basilisk is a species of lizard.

As for the Dragon, the medieval versions are often hard to distinguish from other serpents which it is a species of, not always looking like the ones we've become accustomed to seeing: large, 4-legged, fire-breathing and with membrainous wings. These Western dragons became popular in the 16th to 18th centuries. Winged hybrids like mine, with "two lion's paws and a dog's head that populate the drop capitals and decorated margins of manuscripts . . . are a priori serpents." It is speculated that "this is probably because the term draco is the one most often used to designate the diabolical figures of the serpent in the Bible." Thus the term dragon became linked with monstrous serpents. As always, Wikipedia has more.

After all the time I spent on that dragon, I needed a couple of quickish drawings. The two at the top of this page are indeed weird mythological creatures, both having out of control horns. The Parandus is described by Pliny the Elder as "a type of Scythian reindeer, the size of a cow with a head larger than a deer's, but similar in appearance because of the branching antlers. It also has split hooves, a mane, and a coat similar to that of a bear, and its skin is so tough that it can be used to make breastplates." It also apparently had the ability to camouflage itself. The Bonnacon also comes from Pliny: "It is said to have the mane of a horse and the body of a bull, as well as horns so twisted as to be useless in combat." However, it was fleet of foot and could project its dung which burned on contact as far as a hundred feet. Thankfully, my version does not include the flying dung, which many illuminators did. You can see one such illumination here.

I've previously drawn the ubiquitous hunting dog but I also ran across several depictions of guard dogs. Mine has that same slender body of a greyhound, although most other examples are a sturdier, stockier kind. All look fearsome and in some cases are praised for their loyalty to their master.  In depictions of shepherds and their flocks, dogs almost always appear. "They are usually of secondary importance . . . but related comic images, such as depictions of shepherds playing a fife while their dogs dance - doubtless a reflection of contemporary reality - are frequent in margin illustrations."

Wanting to get the rest of the week's drawings on this same page, I found this small tortoise a perfect fit. Pliny also had a lot to say about tortoises and turtles and they were common enough that their traits, like their slowness, were well known. They did not commonly appear though, in medieval manuscripts, but occasionally are seen among the animals in representations of the Creation and of Noah's Ark. Not much symbolism was ever attached to them.

I really wanted to draw the boar this week, partly because his coloring fit well with the others, and it was a tight fit getting him into that last space. His legs are a little short because of that. I like the way he is looking back over his shoulder. Boar hunting was popular among the nobility "who discerned in it echoes of armed combat." It was difficult and dangerous, just as it is today. They got classified with the "black beasts" (as opposed to the gentler "red beasts" such as deer) and were viewed negatively, even as the animals of the devil. The text lays out a list of their natural properties which were interpreted as negative signs and tied to acts of sinners (like they love to wallow in the mud, as sinners love to wallow in transgression), thus using the boar's behavior to label it "a natural opponent of the celestial aspect of the Christian ideal." Me thinks these medieval religious folk had too much time on their hands.

That's it for this week. I'm still using pencil undersketches to get things right before adding ink using my brush pens (which I'm really starting to like), fountain pen and the occasional gel pen and pigma pen. And I'm still having fun. Remember, you can click on the pictures to see a larger version to see more details.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Week Two of #INKtober 2019

My Medieval Bestiary creatures are still bringing smiles as I pick and choose what to draw. I found myself a little short on time the first part of the week so was looking for relatively easy images that could be quickly sketched and not slow me down with a lot of detail and colors. Everything on this page was done with a fountain pen containing a dark brown ink. What little color I used was from a brush pen. This grouping is also a reminder that not all medieval illuminated manuscripts were religious, so not all of these creatures have those kinds of links. The porcupine, for instance (and not to be confused with the hedgehog which does show up in the Bible), was most likely included in illuminations (and quite realistically) because it was common in Italy and often included in princely and royal menageries which could provide living models for artists. Marco Polo also describes a porcupine hunt while on his travels. Because of the way porcupines would roll into a ball, leaving attackers with quills lodged in them, Louis XII of France took them as his symbol with the motto "He who touches me pricks himself." The image of the porcupine became oft used on many objects commissioned by the King.

Dogs like the one I chose also seem quite common in this period, a slender greyhound involved in a hunt. The text notes that in general "[dogs] accompanied humans everywhere, keeping them company, guaranteeing their security, and assisting in every kind of hunt . . . Illuminated manuscripts offer ample testimony of this omnipresence, for they are teeming with dogs." In fact, there were different breeds for different kinds of hunts just like today, and the greyhound with its speed was best at fatiguing the prey during the royal hunt. Mine was in the midst of a bird hunt.

The crane, it turns out, held the same appeal for middle ages illuminators as this one did for me: its grace and elegance. They were domesticated in the 13th & 14th centuries to be used to embellish gardens, much like the peacock. Illuminators regularly used crane motifs to decorate initials and in the margins of manuscripts. Any symbolism attached to the crane is usually positive, commonly the quality of vigilance as exhibited by their habit of having a lookout at night that holds a stone in an upraised foot which wakes it up with the noise of its fall if it dozes off. This behavior was also incorporated into a religious allegory with Christ as the stone and the mind as the foot. It gets quite complicated as these often do during this time period. These birds were also regularly used "to symbolize the regular monks and nuns who lived by the precepts of precise order . . . because cranes were observed to fly in formation" and the crane at the head of the v formation "offered a perfect image for the heads of religious communities who encouraged the other members under their authority by their example and their preaching." There's much more about cranes in legends and fables which can be found in this Wikipedia entry. They were one popular bird throughout history.

As for this unicorn, how adorable is he? It looks nothing like how I usually have seen mythical unicorns depicted, short of that horn. Almost more of a sheep than a horse which is usually the basis of a unicorn. This one shows up in the illumination of the Parable of the Unicorn and the Two Rats where the unicorn is actually a bad actor representing "the figure of death, who pursues man ceaselessly and longs to take him." Well, not so adorable after all! The more well known symbolism for the unicorn is just the opposite: purity and grace. The biblical allegory includes a virgin as Mary and the unicorn as Christ and is all sweetness and light.

Towards the end of the week I had a little more time to devote to each sketch and chose these that fit the same color scheme. Still using the brown ink fountain pen, these are additionally highlighted with brush pens in sepia, blue and light grey and the occasional micron pigma pen. The last one also has white gel pen on the tail. I'm obviously drawn to quirkiness and that particular Ibex struck me as quirky indeed. In fact, the text says that it is usually depicted similarly to real-world ibexes, head down with horns digging into the ground, unlike mine. The Ibex was thought to be able to break a fall with those powerful horns as well as run them through any human threat, and that it preferred altitude, climbing so high that they become invisible to the human eye. The bestiaries interpreted the ibex as "a figure for enlightened Christians capable of blending the two biblical Testaments into a salutary harmony with which to overcome adversity" while our friend Rabanus Maurus makes it "an image of the salvation of the flesh through the teaching of the two Testaments." Okay . . . not sure I see that but apparently it was the common understanding.

The only thing quirky about the Nycticorax is that hooked beak which gives it a rather stern visage, and that name which I am totally unfamiliar with. Often grouped with owls because both are nocturnal and have similar attributes, the nycticorax is smaller and is not depicted with small ear-like protrusions in medieval imagery like the owl is. However, both owl and nycticorax, like most nocturnal animals, "did not enjoy a good reputation in the middle ages." The nycticorax became "interpreted as a figure for medieval Jews . . . [who] were reproached for having condemned Christ despite his having come to save them, and thus for preferring darkness to the light of the Savior, who then turned toward gentiles." No wonder mine looks so grumpy with people thinking THAT about it! However, if one is drawn with a mouse in its beak, that represents a faction that viewed it positively for its ability to clear barns of rodents. 

Lastly, if you had asked me if I planned to sketch any serpents, I'm sure I would have said no. I have an aversion to snakes of any kind, even if only in a photo, and to me, a serpent is a snake. But here I was looking at a double page spread containing the weirdest legged creatures, the one I chose being the least weird of them, and almost as adorable as that unicorn. It was indeed a surprise to read the caption and discover these were serpents! The text confirmed why the majority of the serpents looked so nasty and weird, stating that "the serpent was one of the most widespread symbols of evil in medieval iconography" pointing back to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. But since that story doesn't give much of a description, a generic form derived from Greco-Roman mythology ended up in these bestiaries. Generally speaking, serpents had a body of a reptile, the paws of a lion (although usually two rather than four), the head of a dog or a wild animal, and often but not always, leathery or feathered wings, this last one giving us what we think of as dragons (which are related but separate). My serpent sure fits the description sans the wings. I was wondering what the deal was with those fat feet!

As always, clicking on the photos will provide a larger view to study.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Week One of #INKtober 2019

I am having great fun with my Medieval Bestiaries. These three are in the heavily illuminated borders of the opening page to the Gospel According To John in a mid-1400 "Book of Hours". The things that made their way into manuscript borders often show an irreverence towards organized religion, or at least the ordained leaders thereof, as in this pig in ecclesiastical vestments. Also, all these mythical creatures and others we find there, we moderns wouldn't think to have connections to religious traditions, yet here they are. The opening chapter to The Grand Medieval Bestiaries reminds us of the forces influencing common life back in those days: 

"The cultures and ideas of the Middle Ages were profoundly marked by bodies of thought issuing from the confrontation of Christianity with the legacy of the ancient world, preeminently a symbolic system according to which the visible world was merely an expression of the realm of the invisible. But these same centuries were also characterized by a passionate and unpredictable attentiveness to the world, and by impulses to invention, poetry, and creation that were sufficiently strong to prevail over rigid theories and dogmas."

It goes on to note that "Medieval images are often polysemic; they can have several meanings, and depictions of a single animal can signify very different things." Cross over into the religious realm, and the meaning gets tied to a bible passage which can give them a totally different symbolism. Or, as indicated in other sources I've read, the illustrator may merely be having fun or sneaking in his or her own slant.

It's always been interesting to me how early Christianity found ways to fold pagan beliefs into its teachings. Take the halcyon, a mythical animal that may or may not correspond to a real animal. Its legend dates back to classical antiquity and the Greek gods, part of which says it lays its eggs directly on the sea, at which point the sea remains perfectly calm until the eggs hatch in 14 days. Sailors referred to this period as the "halcyon days", an expression still used today to to describe an idyllic, peaceful and even prosperous time in the past that is remembered as better than today. Its Christian symbolism ties this period of grace to God's love for "even the least significant of his creatures", making it a symbol of hope and faith.

The Caladrius is also a bird of legend, showing up in a list of unclean birds in the Old Testament while the ancient Greeks and Romans again weave a tale of a bird that can absorb sickness (and thus heal) before "flying away toward the sun which burned away the illness". But if the bird turned away from the patient, he or she would surely die. Fast forward to our medieval bishops and the bird now, partly because of its whiteness "denotes Christ, who came to earth to save humanity." It wasn't a great leap to tie the healing powers of the mythical bird to the Christ who bore our sins. The Caladrius is not always portrayed as duck-like as in this rendering, but this version rather tickled my funny bone.

Now for the giraffe. First let me say that the rest of the sketches went rather easily, but the giraffe, which I THOUGHT would be a breeze, tripped me up. I shortened the body several times but I think it is still longer than the one in the book. Just several things off and I'm tempted to try again. But not any time soon - must move on to the next bestiary. As to why a giraffe would show up in 15th century manuscripts since knowledge of this animal was rare and often described by "authors of fantastic narratives and accounts of wonders," perhaps that was reason enough to slip one in here and there. As for a religious connection, giraffes do show up in the Old Testament and one Rabanus Maurus offered up a moral interpretation of this animal, often described as having the head of a camel, the neck of a horse, the hooves of an ox and the spots of a leopard: that its hybrid character and spotted skin "could be likened to the multitude of human vices, which ultimately leave their mark on those who surrender to them." But apparently, moralizing and illustrations of the giraffe remained quite rare.

No doubt,  more than you wanted to know about these creatures, but I find learning about them as I draw just one more perk of the process.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

#INKtober2019 Has Begun

For months I've been considering what thing I would concentrate on during this year's INKtober, a world-wide yearly challenge to get out your pens a draw something each day in the month of October. I considered drawing the unusual trees in a book that was given to me, or maybe focus on the photos in another book I had on hand that showed stone walls in Ireland. I looked at the official INKtober prompts and was uninspired. It was pretty much by accident that I recently found this book at the library, too big and too heavy to shelve upright so was lying out flat on a shelf next to a section of books I was scanning. I flipped through a few pages and thought, yes, sketching from these pages of old manuscripts with their quirky animals was what I wanted  to work with this month.

I couldn't believe it wasn't a reference book, but one I could check out and bring home. It's so heavy I nearly needed help getting it out to the car. My bathroom scale says it's a hefty thirteen and a half pounds. Over the weekend I went through every page and marked those that caught my interest. More than thirty-one it turns out so we shall see what wins out.

Click on the photo for a larger view

Here is what I sketched on this the first day of INKtober (and yes, it took my usual hour, not a quick sketch as I did an undersketch in pencil before tackling details in pen). It is from a Book of Hours from the mid-1400's and is the cover page leading to the book of John. There are several animals I could sketch from this one page but chose the bear and the hippogriff squaring off. I tell you, these manuscript embellishers had quite the sense of humor.

Honestly, I didn't know what that animal was on the left and scanned the text to find out. I still didn't know what it was after it told me. I don't think I've heard of a hippogriff before but according to Merriam-Webster and other sources, it is "a legendary animal having the foreparts of a griffin and the body of a horse." I'm not seeing wings on this one but that does explain the bird's head with beak and the horse reference explains what's going on in the back part. I'm hoping to learn much more as I go through this book and sketch away.